How Your Hunger Hormones Control Weight Loss

With Michelle Sands NP

And what you can do right now to get them back under control

A littler girl who is hungry eats a sandwich.

Leptin and ghrelin sound like they could be names from Lord of the Rings. But they are actually hormones that regulate your feelings of hunger and satiety.

Ghrelin is released by your stomach when it is empty, signalling your brain that it is time to eat. Ghrelin is fast-acting and should decrease dramatically when you are full. It is at its highest right before you eat, and its lowest about an hour after a meal.

Leptin, on the other hand, means “thin” in Greek, and lets you know when it is time to stop eating. It is a hormone released by your fat cells that tells your brain when your body has had enough fuel and can start burning fat to create energy. It is a longer-term energy balancing hormone and is thought to be the more significant hormone out of the two in terms of appetite, energy production, weight gain and weight loss.

“In a perfectly working body, ghrelin tells us to eat so we don’t die of starvation, and leptin tells us when to stop,” says Dr. Michelle Sands, hormone, metabolism and epigenetics expert, and author of Hormone Harmony over 35. Unfortunately, hormones aren’t always in such perfect balance. Obesity, genetic predispositions or health conditions, diet, sleep and lifestyle can throw our hunger and satiety out of whack, as well as compromise how efficiently our hunger hormones function. The good news is, there are many modifications you can make to get  your leptin and ghrelin levels back to where you’d like them to be.

What Is Leptin?

Leptin is a hormone that lets you know when you’ve had enough food. It decreases your appetite, and signals your body that it is OK to start burning fat for energy. It is released by fat cells into your blood stream to let the hypothalamus, a part of your brain, know your body has enough energy stores in the form of body fat, and that you don’t need to eat anymore and can start making energy out of stored food. 

“Leptin is a bigger player than ghrelin when it comes to weight gain and energy balance,” Dr. Sands says. “It’s closely tied to your thyroid and brain. When leptin is working well, we have a better metabolic rate, mood regulation, memory, brain function, mental sharpness. When it’s no, it can play a role in obesity, mood swings, and brain fog. A lot of symptoms we attribute to low thyroid can also be leptin resistance.”

What Is Leptin Resistance?

Because leptin is created your fat cells, people who have more adipose tissue tend to have higher leptin levels circulating in their bodies. As result of this constant high exposure to leptin, they can build up a resistance to it as well as its appetite-suppressing effects. This can cause the brain to think that you still need more food, or are starving, and keep sending you messages to eat after it should stop. When you eat more food than your body needs, you increase leptin even more, and become even more resistant to it. In this way leptin resistance and obesity can become a hard cycle to break.

How Can I Treat Leptin Resistance?

Leptin resistance can also be caused by consistently high insulin levels or an inflamed hypothalamus. There may also be a genetic component to leptin resistance, and it may be influenced by eating processed foods that can that trick your brain into craving more after you should be full.

“But there’s a lot you can do to reduce leptin resistance,” Dr. Sands says. Some dietary and lifestyle remedies for leptin resistance include:

  • Consuming healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, coconut, fish and grass-fed, pasture-raised animals.
  • Eliminating added sugar from your diet.
  • Getting at least eight hours of sleep. Studies show that getting 8 to 10 hours of quality sleep a night, as opposed to seven or fewer, results in better leptin sensitivity, reduced cravings and a better balance of hunger and energy balancing hormones.
  • Getting adequate exercise. The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that moderate aerobic exercise can improve leptin resistance in people with diabetes and obesity.

What Is Ghrelin?

Ghrelin is a hormone that increases appetite. It is released by your stomach, and travels throughyour blood to sginal to your hypothalamus that your body is in need of fuel, as well as to conserve energy and find food.

Typically, ghrelin is released when your stomach is empty. Ghrelin levels are highest just before eating, lowest about an hour after you have eaten, and remain low for about three hours. “Some people are genetically predisposed to release more ghrelin, and they get hungry faster as a result,” according to Dr. Sands.

How Can I Optimize My Ghrelin Functioning?

Studies reveal that in people with obesity, ghrelin decreases only slightly after eating, which can lead the brain to think more food is needed and lead to overeating. Strategies to help improve ghrelin functioning include:

  • Avoiding sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, which can impair ghrelin’s decline after eating.
  • Eating plenty of healthy carbs such as whole grains, as well as lean proteins like chicken, fish, and tofu. These foods can decrease ghrelin levels and keep you feeling fuller longer.
  • Once again, getting enough sleep! Sleeping fewer than eight hours can increase ghrelin levels, leading to a bigger appetite, and harder-to-control cravings.
  • Staying well-hydrated. Dr. Sands says, “One way to increase volume in your stomach is by drinking water, soups, and broths, as well as water-filled foods like salads, fruits, and vegetables. A full stomach turns down the ghrelin signal.”

If you suspect your hunger hormones aren’t working optimally, it's also a good idea to make an appointment with an endocrinologist to discuss your health, diet, lifestyle, genetic factors and determine the right treatments to get you back to feeling your best.

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