Continuing on with obesity, you know, I’ve been hearing quite a bit about hormones and their role in weight gain. It is an indisputable fact that the concentration of some hormones goes haywire as people gain weight. But listen up o’ seekers of truth: Hormone imbalances are a consequence of weight gain (though I am certain they are also maintainers of such), but in and of themselves they are not the cause.

Hormones are chemicals messengers that have a number of functions, one being regulation or homeostasis. Homeostasis is a control mechanism that maintains the balance in a system—it is a universal principle. The peripheral nervous system is made up of the somatic and autonomic nervous systems (ANS), the latter controlling functions that are on auto pilot–the one’s we don’t have to think about.

The ANS has two branches that act in continual oscillation under normal conditions—the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our fight or flight responses; the parasympathetic for our rest and digest. In other words, each branch of the ANS is responsible for various functions that support either build-up (parasympathetic) or breakdown (sympathetic) processes. Energy utilization is one such process.

During energy buildup and storage or anabolism—when we extract and store our energy molecules—our parasympathetic system is the driver, controlling various hormones and chemical messengers. During breakdown and utilization (fuel burning) or catabolism—it’s our sympathetic nervous system that’s the driver, with it’s own hormones and neurotransmitters. Parasympathetic prepares the body for build-up (rest and digest), which includes slowing molecular breakdown and energy utilization (sympathetic), increased blood flow to the digestive system, and decreased blood flow to the muscles. When this system is in full force, we often feel relaxed, lazy, maybe even sluggish. Our bodies are ripe for energy storage or weight gain when we are in rest and digest.

On the flip side, our sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for energy utilization, especially under stressful conditions. Remember it’s the fight or flight system. During sympathetic stimulation, our metabolism speeds up so we burn fuel more efficiently, blood flow to the digestive organs decreases (less food coming in and being distributed to tissues, thus less stored), and muscles perfuse with blood (getting ready to work). It’s what makes you shake and tremble when you are stress or excited, although I am certain some people rarely feel it so strongly.

I say that because, no doubt, obese people are in a state of parasympathetic imbalance. That is, their parasympathetic system is kicked in more often than their sympathetic system. As a result, it has been observed in obese people that certain parasympathetic processes are acting normally while their sympathetic system is depressed. The effects of such an imbalance is that obese people have difficulty burning fuel efficiently, while they are quite proficient at packing it in.

Okay, we’ll no sh#%…we all know that: It’s harder for obese people to lose weight. No kidding…that doesn’t mean they cannot. The reason this happens is that when fuel keeps coming in as food, the body, in its profound intelligence, does what it’s proficient at: stores it as fat for leaner times, for survival. The body doesn’t understand gluttony; it doesn’t understand prosperity—it doesn’t know 24-hr pizza delivery exists. All it understands is, “Influx of food—store it.” Period. And so that’s what it does.

As a result of overeating, excessive weight gain and very likely low physical activity, the body is forced into this autonomic nervous system imbalance between parasympathetic and under-active sympathetic systems. And a vicious cycle ensues.

Yes it’s the reason obese people don’t see the same gains non-obese people see from short-term exercise…that’s why they’ve got to make it lifestyle, and see what happens after two years of continued activity. Too many obese people quit when they don’t see result within three months.

And, yes, decreasing calories too quickly can lead to a stress that is both mental and physical, one that the body interprets as a need to store even more (“Starvation!”). That’s why I always recommend keeping weight loss to realistic and healthy goals of one pound per week. It’s one thing I like about the Weight Watchers program—they do it slowly and steadily, advocating lifetime wellness and not just a crash-diet (literally and figuratively).

But here’s the skinny: In the end, it still comes down to calories in (and stored) versus calories burned. It’s just that the hormonal changes that DO occur—the ANS imbalance—slow things down that much more for the obese person. In the end, though, part of the answer is still to exercise regularly and effectively, as well as change eating habits (see last post).  There is, however, one more obstacle that is probably the biggest hump when it comes to losing and keeping off weight, and one which I will be discussing in the next post—the human mind.

6 Responses to Obesity Causes Imbalance

  1. Anonymous says:

    Wow, that all makes so much sense to me. Thanks!

  2. Paul says:

    I frequently find people’s adrenals are long term fatigued
    By this I mean their normally short term fight or flight response has been chronically switched on. They show reduced
    Progesterone and cortisol- on the sympathetic half, and also reduced testosterone and estrogen. – on para side. People with obesity frequently have very low melatonin- signifier of reduced gut function. What you see on the outside is someone who is exhausted, unable to digest efficiently, and frequently toxic, disbiotic, usually reacting to foods they
    Consume regularly. I suspect the only difference to what you describe may be semantic, I have found great success by reducing total stress load and rebuilding gut health.

  3. Dr. Ryan Lombardo says:

    Great atricle! You had me until the last paragraph.. Weight Watchers?? Really?? The reason that so many weight watchers participants experience the rebound effect is because they too subscribe to the calories in/calories out method. It does nothing to preserve lean body mass and maintain resting metabolism if people (especially obese people) eat the same ratio of foods just in lesser amounts. In fact, it will actually lower their resting metabolism and reduce lean body mass so they have less ability to “burn” fat as a source of energy. The source of the calories absolutely matters, with or without exercise.

    • Thank you for the comment, doc.

      So how do you know “so many weight watchers participants experience the rebound effect”? My preliminary research could find nothing on that point. Are you a researcher? Do you have privileged information, like perhaps you work in Weight Watchers data analysis department? You see, this type of ‘blind and unfounded’ opinion by so-called ‘experts’ is exactly why I wrote these posts on obesity. We can all read the latest books and blogs and masturbate to our seemingly intelligent and ground-breaking new ideas…but the truth is that it IS a food issue, and it IS a calorie issue.

      My intention is not to embarrass anyone, but my blog, my work, is well thought out. I don’t just toss around the latest theories without saying, “These are just theories; we are not certain yet.” The link below is one of several I have found showing EVIDENCE of WW effectiveness. Do I think people NEED WW? No, but the WW’s philosophy is correct.

      Thanks doc—please come again.

      http://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d6500

      • Dr. Ryan Lombardo says:

        Woah..sorry doc..didn’t mean to ruffle your feathers there. But referring to my comments as “blind and unfounded by a so called expert” is completely unnecessary and unprofessional. My comments are based on my clincal experience “specializing” in weight loss and anti-inflammatory nutrition programs for specific disease. And yes, I have been involved in research since 1998. I also hold the registered trademark for “evidence based alternative medicine” to help explain to others that they will be receiving only evidence based care from my practice. In my practice, it is not a theory that many former weight watchers participants experience the rebound effect..it is fact. That is one of the reasons they are coming to me. I should probably thank them for helping to grow my practice :) However, I am not arguing about whether they lose weight initially. Of course they do. Reduced caloric intake should help people lose weight. My point is that caloric restriction or reduced portions using the same foods is not enough to alter body composition. Weight loss is one thing, lean body mass is another. I’m sure we can agree on that.
        The study you liked to only used weight as the primary outcome, with much of the data self reported. Plus the result, significant or otherwise was minimal at best, within a few kg, which may be publishable, but still unimpressive.
        I enjoyed most of your blog post, and have enjoyed much of your other writings. I’m certain that it is both a food and a calorie issue as well. I agree that there is plenty of misinformation out there. However, I am disappointed in your hostility. I didn’t question your work, only your reference to WW.
        Keep up the good work!

        • Doc, I can appreciate that you work in the biz, and I’m sure you have great success with your clients. I am also sure that you are diligent, and observant and that you see and measure change. You have a program and I’m sure it is excellent, but I’m talking about principles here, and each one I discuss is something we already know about physiology. Your program certainly may be the best, and I get WW is your competitor…but I’m merely making the point that one can lose weight, simply by following some known principles. Should people pay for a program to help them? Sure, why not, and I hope it continues to be you, because I can see you really care about your clients..but that doesn’t change the fact that ANYBODY can do it on their own. The one thing that keeps most people from achieving it, however, is their mind,how they think, nothing else.

          You sound like a smart guy, doc, so just let me say that claims are much stronger with actual numbers behind them. I’m sure you see what you see, but you may not be getting the full idea since you’re evaluating people that already come to see YOU; don’t remove the possibility that you (your business) attract(s) certain types of customers from the start…I’m just saying that if you make bold claims, then you have to have some bold evidence…

          Listen, I’m not defending any one program over another, that was the least important part of the piece. Again, it’s the principles that I find useful. And your program uses all of them to one degree or another. That’s guaranteed.

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