Janet approached me at the end of a seminar I was giving on emotional eating. She was in a state of desperation. In the last six months, she had gained twenty-five pounds and she was afraid she would gain more weight. She was sure her eating had an emotional component to it but was unsure of what to do to curb it. Her overeating was out of control and she could not bring herself to go on another diet.
Janet’s job as inside counsel for a large real estate firm was a regular source of stress. She skipped meals and drank coffee and diet soda all day to keep going. She ate sweets for an energy boost. She worked long hours and exercised infrequently because of time constraints and low energy. She was often depressed and anxious.
She complained of chronic fatigue and irritability and didn’t feel rested even after a good night’s sleep. She was noticing more frequent mood swings and difficulty sleeping. At age 49, her periods were becoming irregular and her carbohydrate, sugar and fat cravings intensified before her period and led to weeks of compulsive junk food eating. She binged regularly on bread, pastries, chocolate and ice cream.
It was immediately clear to me that Janet was struggling with more than just emotional issues. Janet is representative of the many clients who come to see me for help with their overeating. Like Janet, they are stressed out, depleted and frustrated. Their bodies are hormonally challenged–adrenal, thyroid, insluin and sex hormone imbalances are causing sweet and carbohydrate cravings, low energy and fatigue, blood sugar fluctuations, PMS, pre-menopausal and menopausal symptoms, overeating and weight gain. They feel desparate and don’t know who to turn to for help.
Most diet books and weight loss programs fail to address hormonal imbalances that fuel overeating. Even the most balanced eating plans can inadvertently trigger body and brain imbalance in sensitive individuals. The majority of clients I work with believe their overeating is emotionally driven. They feel ashamed and guilty about their eating ane exercise habits. They see themselves as weak willed and undisciplined when it comes to eating and exercise. I remind them, and I’d like to remind you that it’s not your fault that you may have inherited some hormonal imbalances or that you live in a stressful, 24/7 chemically toxic urban environment. Both are throwing off your chemistry.
Change begins with awareness. The first step in resolving hormonal imbalances that lead to overeating is to pay attention to the symptoms. Once you know what to look for, you can begin to make some simple lifestyle changes to bring your body back into balance. Some symptoms may represent underlying conditions that will require the assistance of a qualified healthcare provider.
During our first session together, I susptected that Janet was suffering from adrenal exhaustion caused by too much stress and the resultant poor lifestyle habits. She exhibited many of the symptoms of adrenal burnout, which include:
- cravings for sweets, carbohydrates and salt
- weight gain or difficulty releasing weight
- feeling tired even with adequate sleep
- feeling tired after exercise
- need for caffeine and other stimulants
- depression and/or mood swings
- poor ability to cope–emotionally overwhelmed
- inability to concentrate
- hair loss
- tendency to get sick, i.e., colds and flu
- low blood pressure
- symptoms of low blood sugar, i.e. weak and shaky
I also suspected that Janet’s thyroid might not be working optimally. Hormonal changes such as pre-menopause can affect thyroid function. Janet’s history of chronic low-calorie dieting could have reduced her thyroid function. And thyroid problems ran in her family–both her mother and sister were on thyroid medications. Many sypmtoms of adrenal fatigue are similar to the symptoms of thyroid imbalance. Symptoms of low thyroid function, or hypothyroidism include:
- weight gain; difficulty releasing weight
- severe fatigue
- excessive need for sleep
- sluggish in the mornings
- brittle hair; hair loss
- brittle nails
- dry skin
- irregular periods, PMS symptoms
- reduced sex drive
- poor concentration and/or memory
- puffy face; water retention
Janet’s cravings for sweets, starches and stimulants and the fatigue, irritability and mood swings were also possible symptoms of other hormonal imbalances. She complained of feeling “weak and shaky” at times and she fit the profile of someone with symptoms of low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia:
- cravings for sweets, alcohol
- drained, shaky feeling
- dizziness or feeling faint
- confusion, forgetfulness
- heart palpitations
- coordination difficulty
- blurred vision
- poor concentration
Janet was also exhibiting symptoms of Premenopause Syndrome, or sex-hormone imbalance, which include:
- cravings for sweets, carbohydrates and caffeine
- weight gain
- low metabolism; thyroid dysfunction
- unstable blood sugar
- water retention; bloating
- foggy thinking, confusion
- mood swings
- hot flashes/ night sweats
- inability to handle stress
- hair loss
- fibrocystic breasts
- uterine fibroids
- changes in sexual appetite and response
If, like Janet, you are experiencing many of the symptoms of the various hormonal imbalances discussed above, it is important to share your findings and concerns with a well-informed healthcare provider who can test your hormone levels and treat any hormonal imbalance. Hormonal imbalance may very well be contributing to your overeating. There are some changes you can begin to make right now to improve your hormonal balance, as follows:
- Add more natural wholesome foods to your diet, especially fresh raw veggies. Fiber helps move toxins out of the body and helps fill you up, making it easier to gently release some of the foods you may be consuming that might be contributing to hormonal havoc.
- If you are eating animal proteins, including eggs and dairy products, make sure they are hormone and pesticide free and preferably free-range.
- Try to reduce or eliminate your intake of sugar and hightly refined processed carbohydrates. Try more wholesome sweets like fruits, dried fruits or even fruit smoothies.
- Try to reduce your use of stimulants like caffeine and nicotine and your alcohol intake. All of these are stressors on your delicate hormonal balance.
- Try to include some mild exercise in your day such as a 10-15 minute walk, yoga or gentle stretching. If you are over-exercising, stop! This is a big stressor on your body.
- Plan more time for adequate sleep and periods of rest–your body needs rest to heal and repair.
- Try to reduce emotional stressors, if possible, and practice relaxation and deep-breathing techniques as needed, and
- Go green–make the switch to less toxic products, such as cleaning solvents, shampoos, detergents, etc.
The good news is that your body is very adaptive and you can get your hormones back in balance. There is no reason to live with hormonal hell and hormone triggered overeating. It will involve some patience on your part and most likely some trial and error. And perhaps a search for the right, compassionate health-care provider. You are worth the effort!
Posted by Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, MFT. If you have a question or topic you would like to see addressed in this blog, go to http: //www.overeatingrecovery.com.