Hunger Hormones
Hunger Hormones

The hunger hormones and weight loss

Weight loss could easily be named the challenge of the century. There is an entire industry that relies upon our (bad) eating habits. And they sure know how to push their products without us even noticing that it wasn’t really our idea to rat that chocolate.

Maybe it was our idea, but someone planted it there and hunger hormones took advantage of that. Or was it the other way around?

While this article will not give you a magic formula to control your hormones, it will offer you some tools that you can use to gain the upper hand.

Hunger Hormones Explained

Hunger hormones are the good cop and the bad cop of your figure. While everyone hates the bad cop, any good police squad needs one, because that is the guy that makes things happen.

In our scenario the bad cop is ghrelin and it makes hunger happen. I told you that you’ll hate him. It makes our appetite for food grow and it makes us feel hungry.

The good cop is leptin a hormone that, by some irony of fate, is produced by fat cells and it tells us when to stop eating. It gives us the feeling of satiety.  

It is easy to understand why an imbalance between these hormones can cause weight gain.

Let’s take a look at how they work, and then we will analyze what strategies we can adopt to make the hunger hormones work in our favor.

Ghrelin – know thy enemy

In all fairness, ghrelin has a very important purpose. Without hunger, we wouldn’t know that we need fuel for our cells.

This might not seem important when you are trying to lose weight, but it is under normal circumstances and it was in the past, when our society didn’t have free access to food.

Back then hunger drove human kind, and with hunger we evolved. We learned to hunt, to build tools, too cook and to look for other resources.

You can read more about nutrition and how it evolved for us, to paint a better picture about why hunger hormones are important.

Ghrelin is secreted by cells in the stomach and in the small intestine. It’s main purpose is to make us feel hunger, although it is important in other areas too.

After eating ghrelin levels lower under the effect of leptin.

Interestingly enough, obese patients do not have higher ghrelin levels. In fact, they have lower levels than those with average weight, as this study confirms.  They may be more sensitive to it, but that needs to be researched further.

Leptin

Leptin, the good cop that we were talking about, is a hormone produced by adipose tissue. The fat ceels in our body are the ones that produce this hormone that dictates the brain to stop eating.

A little known fact is that we don’t gain fat cells as we gain weight. In fact, we expand the cells that we already have.

Contrary to what scientists used to believe, we are not born with all the fat cells that we are ever going to have. The number increases as we age. But once we hit teenage years, that is it[1].

This is why it’s important to help our children maintain a good body mass. And why we need to understand that even if we don’t get more fat cells, they can expand an awful lot.

Obese patients tend to have a high level of leptin. This raises some questions because having both low hunger hormone and a high hunger suppressing hormone should mean a lack of appetite.

We all know that is not the case, so what’s happening there?

Leptin resistance

Remember insulin resistance? When cells need more and more insulin to allow glucose in?

You can read about it in the article about nutrition that we mentioned before. You can find that one here.

Leptin resistance happens when your brain doesn’t get that information correctly. Parts of our brain are supposed to notice the levels of leptin and cut appetite.

With leptin resistance, the level of the hormone keeps rising but the brain believes that we are starving and doesn’t tell us to stop eating.

There are many reasons for which this happens, and it is really important to ask your doctor for some blood work.

What to test?

  • Cholesterol levels;
  • Triglycerides;
  • Glucose;
  • Thyroid function;
  • Vitamin D levels.

Those who suffer from undiagnosed and not controlled by treatment, metabolic disorders, tend to also suffer from leptin resistance.

Also, there was a correlation between vitamin D levels, leptin and size of the fat tissue[2].

What options are there to balance these hormones?

There are a few strategies that can help regain balance over your hunger hormones.

Sleep well

The relation between weight gain and sleep is well known by many. Sleep regulates a lot of our hormones. Ghrelin and leptin are correlated with the circadian rhythm, so 7 to 9 hours of sleep are essential them.

If you have trouble falling asleep you could take a look at the information available to help you get over sleep problems.

Eat a lot of fiber

Fiber, and fiber supplements, offer the sensation of satiety, fooling the brain into believing that you had a nutritious meal. Over time, this can lower leptin sensitivity.

Eat foods rich in good fats like fish

A clinical trial showed that eating a diet rich in fish lowered leptin levels along with body weight. Fish oil supplements can also be very efficient, especially for those who, like me, dislike fish.

Eat more proteins

Eggs and high protein foods were shown to help lower ghrelin, suppressing appetite for longer.

Eat less carbs

Carbohydrates increase leptin levels faster than any other nutrient. In time, this can lead to leptin resistance and also to insulin resistance.

You probably already knew that we are basically controlled by genes and hormones. The good part about this fact is that they evolved to help us survive.

The other good part is that medicine evolved enough to learn the mechanisms behind our hormones, and to offer us control over them.


[1] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/fat-cell-numbers-teen-years-linger-lifetime

[2] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41366-019-0347-7

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