Now I know what you are all thinking – breastfeeding is supposed to be great for weight loss isn’t it? Well, you are both right and wrong. In the early post-partum stages breastfeeding helps your uterus to contract back to its pre-natal size and your body burns up to 500 calories keeping up with the supply and demand of your baby.
During pregnancy your body produces high levels of prolactin. Prolactin is the hormone responsible for stimulating milk production and also inhibits ovulation. Prolactin is a ‘fat storing’ hormone which is why you end up storing fat around your thighs, buttock, and stomach during and after your pregnancy.
But once your child weans onto solid foods your milk supply demands are no longer so high and there is a period where your body needs to transition – this period of transition can often lead to sudden weight gain as you may be consuming more calories than you need. However if after 2-4 weeks your weight still isn’t shifting you could be suffering from a hormonal imbalance – specifically estrogen dominance.
Before I talk about estrogen dominance let’s take a look at the hormonal interaction within your body from pregnancy until after birth:
- During pregnancy your body produces high levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone which in turn triggers the synthesis of large amounts of prolactin. Prolactin is the hormone responsible for stimulating milk production and also inhibits ovulation. However during pregnancy these high levels of progesterone and estrogen also inhibit prolactin from producing milk. Prolactin is a ‘fat storing’ hormone which is why you end up storing fat around your thighs, buttock, and stomach during and after your pregnancy.
- After the birth of your baby your estrogen levels drop. Low levels of estrogen stops menstruation from starting and also keeps your libido low. Estrogen is a ‘fat storing’ hormone.
- After birth the chances are you won’t be ovulating for a while and so your progesterone levels will be low. Ovulation produces progesterone. Progesterone is also a ‘fat burning’ hormone.
- Testosterone levels are also low when breastfeeding. Low levels of testosterone can also reduce your libido. Testosterone is also a ‘fat burning’ hormone.
- Both stress and sleep deprivation can increase prolactin and cortisol levels within your body. Like prolactin, cortisol is a fat storing hormone.
- Upon weaning your child from the breast fully (or reducing frequency of feeds) your progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone levels will begin to rise again.
My most recent little terror has just turned 2 and is still breastfeeding – she has been weaned onto solid foods for a very long time now and only breastfeeds once in the morning and once in the evening. Over the past few months, despite my controlled diet and regular exercise regime, I have gained a small amount of body fat that just won’t budge. I have gained body fat around my stomach, my buttocks, and my thighs. I have also become ridiculously dopey throughout the day to the point that I am practically bordering on suffering from narcolepsy. To top this all off my menstruation seems to be getting heavier every month coupled with bouts of extreme nausea and headaches to boot for the first two days.
What is Estrogen Dominance?
Estrogen dominance is where your body has too high a ratio of estrogen to progesterone, or it has too low a level of progesterone in comparison to a normal estrogen level.
Okay, I do average on about 5 hours sleep a day, and I do have an incredibly heavy workload, so if heavy menses and nausea weren’t part of the equation I would be the first to say that my cortisol and prolactin levels were high due to sleep deprivation and stress – and that’s why I’m gaining the wait and unable to keep it off. But after reading a rather long list of the symptoms of estrogen dominance I would say that is more likely to be the culprit, in addition to my sleep deprivation of course.
So looking at the factors above it could be that my body has high levels of
Some symptoms of estrogen dominance are:
- Breast tenderness
- Decreased sex drive
- Depression with anxiety or agitation
- Dry eyes
- Foggy thinking
- Heavy or irregular menstruation
- Magnesium deficiency
- Memory loss
- Mood swings
- Water retention
- Weight gain around the abdomen, buttocks, and hips
- Zinc deficiency
(I’d hate to tell you all how many of these I can tick off.)
How Can I Restore My Hormonal Balance Naturally?
So the obvious answer would be to stop breastfeeding but that isn’t something that I would encourage and nor is it something that I am thinking about doing myself, at least not any time soon. If you follow a Paleo diet then you should already be consuming the right foods, if not stay clear of grains, soy, GM foods, and any processed dairy or sugars. If you’re primal and include dairy drop down to only grass-fed raw butter and ghee or simply drop it altogether. Oh and keep your meat grass-fed, your fish wild, and your fruit and vegetables organic as much as possible. So now that we have covered the basics what foods can help to balance your progesterone and estrogen levels?
A good quality grass-fed gelatin will help too boost your L-arginine levels. L-arginine is an amino acid that is thought to boost your progesterone levels by up to 71%.2 Other good food sources of L-arginine include sesame seeds, seaweed, and spirulina.3
Sunflower seeds are high in vitamin E containing 36.3mg per 100g and have been found to boost progesterone levels by 67%.2 Other good sources of vitamin E are almonds and spinach. Sunflower seeds also contain high levels of vitamin B-6 which is known to both reduce estrogen levels and boost progesterone levels. It is also important for keeping intracellular levels of magnesium and zinc balanced and as both magnesium and zinc deficiency could be a problem I would include these in your diet regularly.4, 5
The guava fruit contains a whopping 228.3mg of vitamin C per 100g. Vitamin C has been found to increase progesterone levels by 77%.2 Other good sources of vitamin C are bell peppers, papaya, and broccoli.6
Magnesium and Zinc Rich Foods
As both magnesium and zinc deficiency can be a problem it would be a good idea to include some foods that were rich in both. Squash and pumpkin seeds and dark chocolate all have high levels of magnesium, and oysters, beef, lamb, and pumpkin and squash seeds are all great sources of zinc.7, 8
Fermented Cod Liver Oil
Probably the least tastiest out of this list but fermented cod liver oil contains high levels of vitamin D which will aid in regulating your hormones and decrease inflammation within your body.
Switch Coffee for Green Tea
Although coffee can bring its benefits it can also increase cortisol and insulin production which won’t help with your weight loss goals – try switching to green tea which will detoxify your body naturally and keep you alert.
Lift Heavy and Move Slow
Strength training has been found to be beneficial to people who are both estrogen and progesterone dominant so try and implement some easy heavy lifting 3 to 5 times a week. Any form of cardio at a steady pace has been found to be more efficient at burning fat than HIIT in those suffering from estrogen dominance so get walking, running, cycling, or swimming daily and keep the pace relaxed. Just for future reference though HIIT has actually been found to be useful in those who are more progesterone dominant and so ovulation is actually the best time to use this kind of exercise to your benefit.9
So as you can see it really is just all about hormones – after all isn’t everything when you’re a woman? This is all Mother Nature’s way of keeping your baby healthy and your body from conceiving again in order to keep you healthy too so don’t panic – one day you will bounce back. What’s important is your health and enjoying your time with your baby or toddler – easier said than done when the terrible twos approach, when you’re sleep deprived, or when you just want to go to the loo without taking your little one with you I know!
Has anyone else struggled to lose weight whilst breastfeeding? I’d love to hear your thoughts so why not leave a comment using the comments box below?
- (Anonymous). (n.d.). Estrogen Dominance – An Elevated Estradiol to Progesterone Ratio. In John R. Lee, M.D.. Retrieved from http://www.johnleemd.com/estrogen-dominance.html
- (Anonymous). (n.d.). How to increase progesterone. In Miscarriage Research. Retrieved from https://sites.google.com/site/miscarriageresearch/hormones-and-miscarriage/progesterone-research/how-to-increase-progesterone
- (Anonymous). (n.d.). Foods highest in Arginine. In SELFNutritionData. Retrieved from http://nutritiondata.self.com/foods-000089000000000000000.html
- Whitbread, D.. (n.d.). Top 10 Foods Highest in Vitamin E You Can’t Miss. In HealthAliciousNess.com. Retrieved from http://www.healthaliciousness.com/articles/vitamin-E.php
- Lydia. (2013). The Importance of Vitamin B6. In Divine Health FROM THE INSIDE OUT. Retrieved from http://divinehealthfromtheinsideout.com/2013/01/the-importance-of-vitamin-b6/
- Whitbread, D.. (n.d.). Top 10 Foods Highest in Vitamin C. In HealthAliciousNess.com. Retrieved from http://www.healthaliciousness.com/articles/vitamin-C.php
- Whitbread, D.. (n.d.). Top 10 Foods Highest in Magnesium You Can’t Miss. In HealthAliciousNess.com. Retrieved from http://www.healthaliciousness.com/articles/foods-high-in-magnesium.php
- Whitbread, D.. (n.d.). Top 10 Foods Highest in Zinc. In HealthAliciousNess.com. Retrieved from http://www.healthaliciousness.com/articles/zinc.php
- Teta, J.. (2012). Female hormones and weight loss. In metaboliceffect.com. Retrieved from http://www.metaboliceffect.com/female-effect-hormones-determine-female-fat-patterns/