Natural Weight Loss. One of the most common questions people ask is, “how do I lose weight?” Indeed, most of us are carrying around a few extra pounds. If you are, you’re not alone; two-thirds of the US population is now officially overweight.
Before moving further, I need to make an important point. There is a marked distinction between “excess weight” and “healthy weight”. Excess weight can cause a broad range of health problems, and it can set the stage for–or increase the risks of additional chronic diseases. In contrast, achieving and maintaining one’s healthy weight is ideal. Thus, the goal becomes NOT one of weight LOSS, but of reaching and remaining at your healthy weight, whatever that weight may be.
There is good news and bad news. The good news is, the problem can usually be solved. The bad news is, it’s not a simple answer. If it were, so many people wouldn’t be struggling like they do!
Weight gain is usually a symptom of a deeper underlying problem, and as with any healthcare puzzle, it’s extremely important to get to the bottom of what’s causing the extra pounds to accumulate. There are numerous causes of extra weight gain, too many to explore completely in one sitting, but I will touch on some of the most common causes in this series of articles.
Cause #1: Low Thyroid Function – your thyroid gland makes thyroid hormone, which is a biochemical gas pedal or thermostat for your cells. It sets the speed of metabolism for almost every cell in your body. It keeps you going, but also eases back on the throttle when necessary so that you don’t burn out. If your cells aren’t getting enough thyroid hormone, their metabolic activity slows down. When this happens, your cells don’t burn fuel (blood sugar) or utilize oxygen like they should. The leftover excess gets stored in the fat cells.
Now, consider this: there are literally 22 or more different underlying issues that fit into 7 different categories or patterns of thyroid dysfunction. In fact, it may not even be an actual problem with the thyroid gland at all! Your thyroid gland itself could be just fine. The real culprit may be coming from any one of several other body systems, and the thyroid gland could be the victim, not the suspect. This is why it’s extremely important that a thyroid function panel includes ALL the relevant biomarkers. When a conventionally-trained practitioner orders a thyroid test, most will only run TSH and maybe T4, and if you’re lucky, they’ll tack on a T3 Uptake. A well-rounded panel includes these and five or seven additional items.
Another caveat is that these tests must be interpreted in a certain way. What most people don’t realize is that lab results aren’t typically interpreted in a way that adequately examines proper function or detects subclinical thyroid problems, and therefore, many conventional doctors miss underlying thyroid dysfunction. A well-trained Functional Medicine practitioner will be able to determine whether your thyroid issue is stemming from a hormone imbalance, adrenal dysfunction, inflammation/infection, nutrient deficit, lack of proper stimulus from the brain, or something else.
Cause #2: Overactive Adrenal glands – the adrenal glands are small flattened triangle-shaped masses that sit on top of your kidneys. Their main function is to help us deal with stress. They produce and release “stress management” hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, whose job it is to raise blood sugar, breathing and heart rates, and blood pressure so that we have more energy to handle the stress we’re up against.
Here’s the catch: our bodies are only designed to handle the immediate stress that quickly resolves. If we’re under too much stress for too long, our bodies pay the price. If levels of certain stress hormones are consistently too high, they will promote weight gain, especially around the lower abdomen (known as “belly fat”), hips, and perhaps the thighs. If this persists further or the situation worsens, a person’s face can become rounder and the skin may become paler. It is important to have your adrenal hormone levels checked. The best screening for this is actually not a blood test; it’s a saliva test. The hormones (like cortisol) found in saliva represent the amount of bioactive hormone readily available for your body to use, so it’s more relevant for untangling your symptoms and determining the right solutions.
Cause #3: Liver Congestion – the liver is a large organ under the right side of your rib cage that primarily acts as a garbage disposal or water treatment plant. It has more than 1,000 functions (established so far), and detoxification is at the top of the list. Every toxic chemical we breathe, eat, drink, or touch, and every medication you take and metabolic waste product your cells generate pass through the liver to be cleansed and converted to a less-toxic or non-toxic substance. Examples of this are all around us and will be explored in future articles. The result is that these wastes go to the kidneys and intestines to be eliminated, leaving the circulating blood clean.
If your liver gets bogged down with too many toxins (from poor diet, living in a polluted area, or being bombarded with excess hormones), then it creates a traffic jam and all the junk waiting in line to be detoxified starts to get backed up and accumulate. This can be worsened by various genetic mutations, many of which are surprisingly common! (We’ll explore some of those at a later date, too.) As a defense mechanism, your body will try to pick the safest place to store the excess toxins, where they will do the least amount of damage to your body. That safe place is the fat cells, which act like storage closets.
When evaluating liver function, most conventionally-trained practitioners order basic screening tests that only reveal a problem in cases like impending liver failure. The biomarkers measured only become elevated when the liver has been under stress for a while already, but will not indicate any earlier sign of a problem. There are excellent tests that evaluate *true* liver detoxification function that go much further beyond those basic blood tests; these are usually part of a much larger panel designed to evaluate a wide variety of body functions, and are highly sensitive and helpful.
These root causes of weight gain or excess weight are only a small sampling; to date, I’ve uncovered over 40 different reasons for packing on the extra pounds. All of these are incredibly commonplace, and almost always overlooked, since most conventional practitioners aren’t trained (at all) to recognize these issues the way they may manifest in everyday life. That’s one area in which Functional Medicine is changing lives!
In closing, I’ll repeat my message from above: the goal should NEVER be simply one of weight LOSS (at any cost), but of reaching and remaining at whatever YOUR healthy weight is. Whatever you weigh when you are TRULY healthy, and after any physiological imbalances have been corrected, is likely to be your healthy weight. In short, it’s NOT about superficial appearances, the cosmetic surface, or vanity; it’s about mastering your health and living a high quality of life, and loving your healthy self and your healthy body as-is.
Since there are indeed over 40 different causes of extra weight known so far, this article is the introductory piece of an ongoing series. Please stay tuned!