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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Banning

Hunger Hormones - How Do They Work?

There are some days when I feel like I can never eat enough.

Other days I feel like I could snack on a few things and be fine.

What’s actually going on?

What is it that's telling our brain that we should eat?

Should we listen every time our brain tells us that we are hungry?

If I’m trying to get to my ideal body size, does that mean I’ll always be hungry?

The Hunger Signal Hormones

There are two main hormones which dictate our hunger cues.

Leptin, which is produced from our fat cells, is the hormone which sends signals to our brain that says we are satiated or full.

Ghrelin is secreted from the lining of the stomach and sends signals that we are hungry.

Leptin for the Win?

So, if we were looking to lose a few pounds, the obvious thought is that we should increase our levels of leptin so they outnumber the ghrelin signals. The more leptin in our system, the more signals which are sent to our brain to eat less. If we eat less, we burn the fat storages already on our body, we lose weight and our weight loss problem has been solved.

Eureka! We’ve found the cure to fat loss!

…but if only it were that easy.

When we consume more energy than we burn each day, especially through highly processed foods and simple carbohydrates like sugar, our body fat increases. Since leptin is produced from our fat cells, the more fat in our body the more leptin is produced.

When our leptin levels are high, more “full” signals are being produced with the intent of being transported to the brain. Remember, our body naturally wants to come back to it’s ideal weight so this action is urging us to eat less to come back to our desired ideal weight. The only problem is that there is such an abundance of leptin in the body that the transport proteins have difficultly sending the signals to the brain. We end up with something like a traffic jam and none of the signals get through to the brain.

If none of the signals are getting sent to the brain, then our body doesn’t know we should stop eating. As we continue to eat more than we should, our fat storages enlarge and we end up producing more leptin.

….which makes the problem worse because more leptin is then produced and so on and so on.

It’s a viscous cycle.

This occurrence is called leptin resistance.

Leptin resistance is pretty similar to insulin resistance. With insulin, too much insulin is being produced but the body and brain stop listening to the insulin signals. Both tend to occur in higher body fat percentage individuals, but men tend to naturally have higher insulin levels and women tend to have higher leptin levels.

So, we need leptin in our system to tell our body that we are no longer hungry. When we have the right amount of leptin, our body can regulate our hunger cues which allows our metabolism to function properly to burn fat cells efficiently. If we have too much leptin in your body and/or diet, the signals may get disrupted ending up in leptin resistance.

Ghrelin, the Yin to the Leptin Yang

Leptin sends signals to decrease the hunger cues, ghrelin sends signals to increase the hunger cues.

Ghrelin is a hormone made in the stomach when it’s empty. Ghrelin is then produced, sent into the blood stream up into the brain with the message, “I’m hungry!”

Obviously, ghrelin is higher before you eat then the signal slows down after you eat.

So, we have ghrelin being produced because the stomach is empty. The ghrelin which is produced sends signals to the brain that our body needs fuel. We in turn react to this signal by grabbing a bite to eat. We continue eating until our body receives more of the signals to stop eating which comes from leptin. However, as we talked about earlier, if we have too much leptin in our system the signal never reaches our brain and we just continue eating because the only signal we are receiving is the signal that we are still hungry.

What Do I Do With This Information?

The reason we go into this level of detail about leptin and ghrelin is to understand how our body sends us the signals to eat. The food we eat is by far the largest contributor to our overall health.

We manage our hunger cues; we manage our health.

When we look just at leptin, we know that our leptin levels are a great signal for our overall health. If we eat too much though, we start to see other negative consequences like hormone imbalances and an under-functioning metabolism.

So managing our leptin levels means we are managing our overall weight and stored up energy. This can be done through

  • Eat whole unprocessed food. Highly processed food and sugars eaten in excess are not processed well within the body and end up being stored as fat which increases our leptin levels. Focusing on unprocessed foods in the right amounts will keep our leptin levels at an optimal level and give us the nutrients our body craves.

  • Lower stress through sleeping 7-9 hours each night and having a stress management routine. Sleep will lower our overall stressed state and allows us to recover for each day. A body which is holding onto stress is also holding onto excess energy in the form of fat. Lower your stress, see the excess fat melt away.

  • Exercise. Moving our body each day will increase our insulin sensitivity causing us to process the glucose stored in our fat storages which will then lowers our leptin levels.

With ghrelin, we really just need to ensure the signal that says we are hungry is accurate. We need to eat when we are actually hungry and stop when we are satiated. So the answer here is simple.

  • Eat satiating foods like unprocessed proteins and fats. Proteins and fats are the most satiating nutrients and will keep us feeling full for hours. We still will need some carbs to keep the body functioning optimally and provide us with energy, but keeping the focus on proteins and fats will keep us satiated.

  • Eat a wide variety of vegetables. The vitamins within the wide array of vegetables will lead to a healthy stomach and a healthy stomach will send the appropriate signal at the appropriate time.

  • Get enough sleep. This is for you late-nighters. The body will tell you that you're hungry late at night and it’s telling you that because you are using energy that you shouldn’t be. You should be asleep so when this craving occurs we usually don’t recognize it because we are in bed. Receiving the signal late at night is 100% normal and is how the body works but that doesn’t mean we need to eat. It means we should already be in bed. We shouldn’t be using the energy that was meant for the next day.

Understanding our hunger cues can be complicated. There can be traffic jams and these traffic jams could start to impact other hormones like estrogen and testosterone. These hormones impact our metabolism as well. If we aren’t understanding our optimal hunger cues, we aren’t fueling the body properly which then leads to an under-functioning metabolism. Which then leads to other hormone issues and weight gain.

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