Hormones, Mental Health and Obesity

See that fat guy in the picture above?

Yes, that is me. Yes, I have had my own struggles with weight in the past.

Do I have personal experience with mental health and hormonal issues?

You better believe I have had these issues, and without being diligent to keep them at bay, I could have them again during my life despite the shape I am in now.

Women often assume that men have an easier time taking off weight than they do.

Do we?

I can’t say for sure, men struggle too. I will say from my own personal experience, I believe we gain weight just as easy as the ladies. I’m not so sure we are as different when it comes to weight loss as some might believe, our mental health status can certainly have an effect on us and our body chemistry can get just as out of whack. This, I know from the course of my own life. I also know from my own experience that it all can be turned around once we become fully committed to making changes that must be adhered to for the rest of our lives.

I used to be quite the chow hound when it came to junk food and anything with sugar and simple carbs. One of my favorite snacks would be two packages of Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts with a large Starbucks Double Shot Espresso Mocha to wash them down with. I could stop at a convenience store on my way home from work while knowing that there would be dinner ready as soon as I got there. I used to get those hunger pains, those cravings for junk foods that are often referred to as being “hangry” multiple times a day. I could eat a five gallon bucket full of salad and not be satisfied until I had something that was loaded with simple carbs, fat and salt. I have had cravings so bad when stressed, that on more than a few occasions I have found myself sitting on the kitchen floor with a package of Oreo cookies, a can of cake frosting and a knife. I was loading those cookies up with big dollops of that sugary frosting in an attempt to quell the stress that was eating me from the inside, harming my health, and leaving me with a sense of shame for being such an out of control glutton. The cravings were no different than that of a junkie looking for a dope fix. Actually, the craving is almost identical as that of an alcoholic craving their next sip of alcohol.

It is a sickness that is driven by multiple factors that drive us to this point!

In my personal case, it has been driven largely by a major depressive disorder coupled with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To anyone who may think there is no way I can relate to their obesity, you need to know I can, I understand what is happening with mental health and the hormonal issues that often accompany obesity. I also know that even if you feel as if you have no hope, there can be hope for you, but you will have to commit to a lifetime of healthy habits and never allow yourself to return to those which got you fat in the first place. Case in point, I am severely carb addicted, therefore I know that it is not okay for me to even indulge in a slice of cake and scoop of ice cream at birthday parties because like an alcoholic, I will be binging on more in pretty short order. Want to know how I know that I can eat a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting? It’s because I have consumed an entire half gallon of ice cream in one sitting. I cannot and will not risk ever returning to that life again. It is not just because I do not like how I look when fat, it is because I value and treasure my good health. I do not want to end up prematurely in a nursing home because I can no longer take care of my basic life functions. This thought was cemented into my mind even further over the last year as I cared for my morbidly obese brother in law in my home as he was terminally ill. Towards the end, on several occasions, I had to help the man with getting dressed, caring for his weeping legs from lymphedema, and assisting him with bathing and personal hygiene when he could not do this for himself.

Have you ever tried to help a sick and weakened four hundred pound man off the toilet and helped clean him because he could not do it himself? It is an eye opening experience and can happen to any one of us when we allow ourselves to get to that point. Never, ever think it cannot happen to you. It most certainly can.

Pictured below is my departed brother in law of 34 years, and my best friend. We lost Howard February 23, 2020 and I miss him dearly.  He was a good man, but a large part of his obesity was driven by mental health issues. When he first moved in with us, I began working with him on nutrition and got him down to 364 pounds from 587 pounds. He was on a transplant list for a new liver if we could get his BMI down to under 40. Just as we were making good progress with his weight, and was gaining hope he might have had a chance to live, he began his old habits of eating junk food again while knowing it was going to bring about his demise. I’m pretty sure I have a full and clear understanding that for many people, their obesity is a mental health issue as well as a physical one. I have lived as one with issues too, and then I was a caretaker for one who had severe issues.

Feel Good Hormones and the Brain

Have you ever noticed that when you bite into sugary foods that your mouth seems to come alive and you instantly feel good for a moment? That is because eating prompts the brain to release “feel good” hormones we know as endorphins. The regulation of these naturally occurring opioids, which can produce a sense of pleasure or euphoria, may help the body know when it’s satisfied. On the flip side, overeating associated with the over-stimulation of this system can damn sure contribute to obesity. Face it, we all know it feels good to eat foods full of added sugar and or simple carbs. Have you ever been one to binge on a bowl of Brussels Sprouts? Probably not, they do not contain the added sugar or simple carbs to release your endorphins. While you might enjoy the taste of those little morsels. they will never bring the joy which comes from a slice of cake or a couple of chocolate chip cookies. There is no denying this fact.

There was a Finnish study where the brains of 10 male volunteers  were scanned by positron emission tomography (PET). The participants were instructed to fast overnight and were injected with a radioactive compound, which binds to opioid receptors in the brain. Using the PET scans, the scientists measured the radioactivity in the men’s brains after they broke their fast and ate a pizza. The scans were repeated after the volunteers consumed a less mouth-watering liquid meal that contained the same amount of calories as the pizza. The investigators found that both meals triggered a significant release of endogenous opioids in the brain. However, only the pizza led to a notable increase in pleasant feelings. (1)

Another integral part of the equation with how food affects our mood is Dopamine which is released during pleasurable situations and stimulates one to seek out the pleasurable activities such as eating. Sex, and several drugs of abuse are stimulants of dopamine release in the brain as well as many of the foods we eat! Dopamine is a so-called messenger neurotransmitter that conveys signals between neurons. It not only controls mental and emotional responses but also motor reactions. Dopamine is particularly known as being the “happy hormone.” It is responsible for our experiencing happiness. The downside to all this feeling good is little different from that which comes from doing drugs.  Certain foods, particularly those rich in sugars and fat, are potent rewards that promote eating even when we are not truly hungry and trigger learned associations between a stimulus and conditioning reward. We eat a glazed doughnut, we feel good in the moment. In evolutionary terms, this property of palatable foods used to be advantageous because it ensured that food was eaten when available, enabling energy to be stored in the body as fat for future need in environments where food sources were scarce and or unreliable. However, in modern societies, where food is widely available, this adaptation has become a liability. We are getting fatter than ever as a society. (2)

When we consume an unsound diet of calorie dense, low nutrition foods we throw our body chemistry out of balance. While some of us may have conditions to leave us more prone to being out of balance than others, we can still largely control this through our diets. Our endocrine system is greatly affected by our nutritional habits whether good or bad. Our endocrine systems are a complex network of glands and organs. It uses hormones to control and coordinate your body’s metabolism, energy level, reproduction, growth and development, and response to injury, stress, and mood. While playing a central role in a healthy, functioning human body, the endocrine system unfortunately receives relatively little attention. The system of hormones works by carrying healthy levels of hormones into the circulatory system to be distributed to organs throughout the body. Proper endocrine health begins where all healthy habits do—eat right and exercise! You are never going to keep your hormonal balance in order as long as your habits keep it out of balance. This is a simple truth for everyone, and this is a point of contention I have with weight loss businesses such as Weight Watchers where they tell their clients they can still eat the same crap that got them fat and out of shape in the first place – so long as they track it. This is like telling a drug addict a little hit of heroin once in a while is not going to throw them off the rails in their health initiative. This does not work!

The endocrine system consists of:

  • Pineal gland (modulating sleep)
  • Pituitary gland (Known primarily for affecting growth, but also plays a role in blood pressure, management of energy, metabolism, and some aspects of sexual reproduction)
  • Pancreas (digestion)
  • Ovaries and testes (sexual reproduction)
  • Thyroid/hypothyroid (mood, metabolic rate)

Your skeletal structure, kidneys, liver, and heart are organs with secondary endocrine functions. Accordingly, the entire body is affected by the health—or lack thereof—of this particular system. A healthy diet helps to ensure proper, long-term function.

The list of foods to add and to avoid for proper endocrine health looks a lot like most similar lists—with a few interesting additions or subtractions:

Pineal Gland: Anyone who is an insomniac recently or experiences any unexpected disruption to their schedule can tell you all you’d ever want to know about the effects of disturbances to the sleep cycle. Foods rich in vitamins B5 and B6 will help to regulate the pineal gland, while aiding in the production and distribution of melatonin, the hormone that regulates the all-important circadian rhythms. These foods include: lentil beans, avocados, sweet potatoes, tuna and turkey.

Generally speaking, you’re looking to cereals, fish, grains, and beans in this category.

Pituitary Gland: It’s kind of ironic that such a small gland—approximately the size of a pea—is primarily responsible for regulating growth in living organisms. But this small-but-mighty engine runs primarily on vitamins D and E, which means your basic group of high-protein meats, fish, eggs, and nuts. Manganese is naturally stored in the bones, but the pituitary gland craves the mineral for added function, meaning leafy green vegetables, beans and whole grains can only help the cause.

Pancreas: For proper pancreas function, the list of ‘don’t eat’ foods is much longer than the advisable foods. Olive oil, in particular, is cited as being good for the pancreas, in addition to many of the food groups covered in the pineal and pituitary sections.

The list of foods to avoid is a long one, but not one that requires much thinking. It’s basically populated with every type of food you’d expect to be advised to avoid. Red meats, fried foods, butter, mayonnaise, and pastries all find their ways onto this list.

People with inflammation or conditions affecting the pancreas may benefit in particular from increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Ovaries and Testes: Remember, we’re talking about foods that revitalize health here, not necessarily aphrodisiacs. So you won’t find anything as enjoyable as strawberries and whip cream on this list. But there are some dietary considerations for proper sexual health, which is primarily about proper blood flow.

For males, zinc has received a great deal of positive attention lately—leading to a great deal of discussion around oysters. When seafood isn’t available, zinc is readily available as a supplement. More generally speaking, foods rich in amino acids such as walnuts, almonds and whey proteins are advisable for this category.

Most attention on healthy foods for female reproduction focuses on boosting fertility, which may or may not be a goal at any particular time. In any case, these tips include adding non-animal proteins (nuts and beans rather than chicken and beef), vitamins and supplements, and perhaps surprisingly, high-fat dairy products. You read that right, high-fat dairy products because low-fat dairy products have a link to ovulatory infertility.

Thyroid: Stop me if you’ve heard this one—eat lots of nuts and vegetables. Hey, there’s a reason they’re called “health foods”—they have a positive effect on most, if not all, parts of the body .


Yes, this condition can cause one to gain a lot of weight. Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) is a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of certain crucial hormones. Hypothyroidism may not cause noticeable symptoms in the early stages. But, over time, untreated hypothyroidism can cause a number of health problems, such as obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease. This is a serious condition that cannot be taken lightly, but you should know that not being able to control your weight does not necessarily mean you have a thyroid problem.

Hypothyroidism signs and symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Constipation
  • Dry skin
  • Weight gain
  • Puffy face
  • Hoarseness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Elevated blood cholesterol level
  • Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness
  • Pain, stiffness or swelling in your joints
  • Heavier than normal or irregular menstrual periods
  • Thinning hair
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Depression
  • Impaired memory
  • Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)

Accurate thyroid function tests are available to diagnose hypothyroidism. Treatment with synthetic thyroid hormone is usually simple, safe and effective once you and your doctor find the right dose for you.

Foods to avoid if you have hypothyroidism:

  1. Foods With Soy, Including Edamame, Tofu, and Miso. There’s long been concern over the potential negative effects that certain compounds in soy — called isoflavones — may have on the thyroid. Some researchers believe that too much soy may increase a person’s risk for hypothyroidism.
  2. Cruciferous Vegetables Like Broccoli and Cauliflower. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, are full of fiber and other nutrients, but they may interfere with the production of thyroid hormone if you have an iodine deficiency. So if you do, it’s a good idea to limit your intake of Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, turnips, and bok choy, because research suggests digesting these vegetables may block the thyroid’s ability to utilize iodine, which is essential for normal thyroid function. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, you would need to consume a significant amount of cruciferous vegetables for it to truly impact iodine uptake.
  3. Gluten, Found in Bread, Pasta, and Rice. Those with hypothyroidism may want to consider minimizing their intake of gluten, a protein found in foods processed from wheat, barley, rye, and other grains. If you do choose to eat gluten, be sure to choose whole-grain varieties of bread, pasta, and rice, which are high in fiber and other nutrients and can help improve bowel irregularity, a common symptom of hypothyroidism. Also be sure to take your hypothyroidism medication several hours before or after eating high-fiber foods, to prevent them from interfering with the absorption of your synthetic thyroid hormone.
  4. Fatty Foods Such as Butter, Meat, and All Things Fried. Fats have been found to disrupt the body’s ability to absorb thyroid hormone replacement medicines.Fats may also interfere with the thyroid’s ability to produce hormone as well. Some healthcare professionals recommend that you cut out all fried foods and reduce your intake of fats from sources such as butter, mayonnaise, margarine, and fatty cuts of meat.
  5. Sugary Foods.Hypothyroidism can cause the body’s metabolism to slow down. That means it’s easy to put on pounds if you aren’t careful. “You want to avoid foods with added sugar because they contain a lot of calories with no nutrients. It’s best to greatly reduce the amount of sugar you eat or try to eliminate it completely from your diet.
  6. Processed Foods in Packages and the Frozen Aisle. Processed foods tend to have a lot of sodium, and people with hypothyroidism should avoid sodium. Having an underactive thyroid increases a person’s risk for high blood pressure, and too much sodium further increases this risk. Read the “Nutrition Facts” label on the packaging of processed foods to find options lowest in sodium. People with an increased risk for high blood pressure should restrict their sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams a day, according to the American Heart Association.
  7. Excess Fiber From Beans, Legumes, and Vegetables. Getting enough fiber is good for you, but too much can complicate your hypothyroidism treatment. The government’s Daily Guidelines for Americans currently recommends that adults up to age 50 should take in 25 to 38 grams of fiber a day. Amounts of dietary fiber from whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, and legumes that go above that level affect your digestive system and can interfere with absorption of thyroid hormone replacement drugs.
  8. Coffee. According to a study in the journal Thyroid, caffeine has been found to block absorption of thyroid hormone replacement. People who take their thyroid medication with their morning coffee can experience uncontrollable thyroid levels. Only take your medication with water. You should wait at least 30 minutes after taking your medication before having a cup of Joe.
  9. Alcohol. Alcohol consumption can wreak havoc on both thyroid hormone levels in the body and the ability of the thyroid to produce hormone.  Alcohol appears to have a toxic effect on the thyroid gland and suppresses the ability of the body to use thyroid hormone. Ideally, people with hypothyroidism should cut out alcohol completely.

As with many health conditions, some factors are out of your control, including your family history and the environment around you. But diet also plays  quite a prominent role — and since you’re the one in charge of your plate, you can decide which foods you choose to eat.

Choose smart, be well!


(1) https://www.WebMD.com

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

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