I write this post in the midst of a huge hormone adjustment. My youngest weaned just a couple of weeks ago and my body is still trying to figure it out. I was pregnant or lactating for over 5½ years (I got pregnant with my second daughter only few weeks after my oldest weaned), so I don’t expect this adjustment to be easy for my body. I feel more tired and emotional and find myself craving sugar (not good during the holidays when sugar is so easily found).
The hormones that regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle, pregnancy and lactation have a complicated interplay, some going up while others go down in a way that is specific to what is happening in your body. It is truly amazing to think of how many different jobs these hormones do. But there are also “side effects”, the most familiar of which is either weight gain or a resistance to weight loss. Women experience this while pregnant (and their bodies take over with hunger and food cravings so that they will gain weight), but also while lactating and while taking hormonal birth control. Many women experience increased hunger and food cravings slightly before and during menstruation, also attributable to these hormones. But, this frustrating hormone “side effect” is really an artifact of society and our own desires (for example, wanting to be thin instantly after having a baby). It makes prefect sense from a physiological and evolutionary perspective that our bodies should prioritize maintaining higher fat levels when pregnant or lactating (or when your body thinks it’s pregnant because you are taking hormonal birth control).
If you are a woman who is struggling to lose weight, hormones may be to blame. But be patient. If you are breastfeeding your child, you are giving them an amazing gift, so be patient. Your child will eventually wean and your hormones will stop making it so difficult to lose those last ten pregnancy pounds. If you take hormonal birth control or hormone replacement therapy, again, be patient. You have already weighed the benefits of this choice (like not getting pregnant before you are ready) and struggling with those last ten pounds is okay. There’s an important piece of information buried here: most women only struggle with the last 10-15 pounds. These hormones don’t really kick in to inhibit weight loss until that point. Many overweight women successfully lose most of their weight even while taking hormonal birth control or lactating. (If you need help, see my posts on paleolithic nutrition, paleolithic lifestyle and diet vs. lifestyle as a place to start.)
These hormones have another very important job while you are pregnant. They reduce your auto-immunity so that your body does not attack the baby growing inside of it. Auto-immunity is also reduced to a lesser extent while you are lactating or on hormonal birth control. Women with auto-immune conditions often find that their symptoms decrease while pregnant or even go into full remission. But too often, the payback is not fun. For many, the symptoms return with a vengeance after the hormones return to normal. This is something that I am struggling with right now. I suffered a form of psoriasis (called lichen planus) prior to getting pregnant with my first daughter. When my second daughter night weaned last summer, I started seeing a few patches again. This was actually the driving force for me to switch to paleolithic nutrition. Now that my daughter has completely weaned, I am experiencing a huge increase is psoriasis. This is the driving force behind my NewYear’s Resolutions, which are all focused on decreasing inflammation in my body.