The Hunger Games

Happy successful sportswoman raising arms to the sky on golden b

The Hunger Games: Understanding Leptin and Ghrelin

As science advances, so does our understanding of our bodies and how they work. We’ve come to realize that getting to a healthy personal weight involves a lot more than “eat less, move more.” Our metabolism is more like a complex chemistry experiment than a simple math equation.

Two important factors in the big scheme of hunger management, food intake, energy balance and natural weight management are leptin and ghrelin.

These names always remind me of little gremlins or ghosts, and the upcoming Halloween candy feast surely wreaks havoc with their functions.

In general, Leptin is known as the ‘good’ hunger hormone with ghrelin being the ‘bad’ hormone.

Secreted from body fat tissue, leptin is a hormone that acts on the brain to regulate how much food we should eat, and how our body metabolizes it once we do. Is it stored or put to use.

Leptin is part of the regulatory processes dating back to cavemen times to ensure survival. Leptin helps tell us when to eat and store body fat for survival

Leptin is regulated by how much body fat you have since that’s the area that it actually comes from and where it is produced. When body fat levels rise, leptin is supposed to act on the brain to reduce food intake and help keep you lean, hence it being known as the good hunger hormone.

It acts on a region of the brain called the hypothalamus to begins a cascade of events designed to reduce food intake.

However, if you have too much stored fat, your fat cells produce excess leptin, causing leptin’s normal function to shut down because it’s been overwhelmed. So it never signals your body to say, “I’m full.” So the more fat you carry, the more likely you’ll be in an endless cycle of never feeling full.

Ghrelin is a hormone that is secreted by cells within the stomach that increase appetite and feelings of hunger.

Just as leptin is in place to ensure your survival, ghrelin acts in a similar way to ensure that you’re not starving yourself. This hormone is not only regulated by your current state, but also by how much food is in your stomach and when you normally eat.

The cells that secrete ghrelin are sensitive to stretch as the stomach fills. When your stomach is empty, the cells are not stretched, which causes them to secrete the ghrelin hormone.

This hormone is then sent to the same section of the brain, the hypothalamus.

Further, once food is ingested and these cells become stretched, there is a decrease in both the secretion and action of ghrelin on the brain, triggering a reduction in feelings of hunger and thus food intake.

These cells are also sensitive to time and your normal schedule. They secrete ghrelin prior to the time when you normally consume foods, like an internal dinner bell for breakfast, lunch and supper. This secretion of ghrelin at normal times is to ensure that you consume food at regular intervals and maintain survival.

Unfortunately, we are past the cavemen stage, yet strict diets can mimic starvation and make ghrelin work against us to preserve body fat.

You might be wondering how to make the hunger hormones work for you instead of against you.

  1. Get more sleep. New research has shown that even low levels of sleep deprivation increase your ghrelin levels and lead to more body fat storage.
  2. Exercise in the morning on an empty stomach. According to a study published in the Journal of Physiology, exercising on an empty stomach may improve glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, which are both tied to ghrelin production. Another study published in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine found evidence that morning exercise may cause greater levels of satiety in comparison with afternoon exercise.
  3. Exercise type matters. Research studies that prove high-intensity interval training is not only most effective at curbing appetite and controlling weight gain in the short term, but also in the long run.
  4. Crash diets don’t work. Eating enough healthy food to sustain your activity level and feel energized will prevent you from entering or staying in “starvation mode” which will increase your appetite.
  5. Eat enough protein, which mediates the ghrelin response. In addition, the high-protein meals are more effective at slowing gastric emptying, which prolongs feelings of fullness.

6.For robust leptin function, reduce the amount of fructose in your diet to fewer than twenty grams per day and eat zinc-rich foods such as beans, chicken, oysters, and cashews to balance out leptin. Just as important, go yoga on the eating: Slow down. By slowing your food intake, you give leptin time to perform and you lower your stress level. More bang for every bite.

  1. Practice Stress Management. Chronic stress increases appetiteThere are many ways to help manage stress, but ultimately different techniques will work for different people. Meditation, prayer, writing in a journal, spending time outdoors, sustaining positive relationships, are some of the best ways to keep your stress levels down and reverse the vicious weight-gain stress cycle.


Good luck and I hope this helps you win the hunger game!


Dr Sue

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