While many hormone issues are female and male dependent, hunger hormones, for the most part, function similarly in both men and women. Of course, issues can be compounded for each gender depending on what is occurring with sex hormones. Understanding how hormones affect your hunger cues can help you be in charge, and take proactive steps to regulate these hormones. When hunger hormones are out of control, that is often how you will feel with food. This can lead to overeating even when you are not truly hungry and then for some people, a response of restricting food in order even out or compensate for the excess calories consumed while overeating. Even if these behaviors are not pronounced, the feelings of not being full/satisfied or not being able to understand the feeling of fullness takes its emotional tool as well.
Let’s dive into these hormones so you can understand how they work, and how you can stay in control of your hunger.
This hormone is mostly made in the stomach and its job is to stimulate hunger. A very simple description of ghrelin’s largest function is that when the stomach is empty, ghrelin is released and when the stomach fills, ghrelin decreases. However, ghrelin is also involved in insulin production and interacts with the amygdala of the brain which is the reward center. The hypothalamus part of the brain is involved in regulating ghrelin. Ghrelin also can increase fat tissue storage. Ghrelin is known to decrease during restrictive dieting which does at some level suppress hunger, but when the restriction after weight loss stops, the hormone then resumes normal levels which can promote hunger and contribute to excess weight gain after dieting.
How to Make Ghrelin Work For You:
- Maintain normal insulin levels
- Avoid restrictive dieting, “yo-yo” dieting tactics, or “crash” diets
- Avoid eating as a response to stress, and notice if you consistently feel hungry before three hours after a meal, this may indicate you are eating as a stress response, or not eating enough protein and fat at meals
- Consider HIT (high-intensity training) methods of exercise or interval training instead of long cardio workouts
- Get adequate quantity and high quality of sleep
- Avoid highly processed foods that promote activation of the pleasure centers of the brain (primarily processed sugar)
This is the other most popular hunger hormone known as the “satiety” hormone. While ghrelin is more short term, quick acting hormone that stimulates hunger, Leptin has longer term effects. It is primarily released in fat cells and its primary job is to signal you to stop eating. Because leptin made in fat tissue, the more adipose tissue you carry, the more leptin your body will produce. However, having high leptin levels, does not necessarily mean your hunger levels will be managed well. It actually ends up being the exact opposite where the body struggles to read and respond to leptin signals when overweight. At an individual’s “set point” the body actually responds well to the signalling of ghrelin and leptin.1 Leptin also is tightly linked to thyroid hormone levels.2
An important piece of leptin, hunger, and fat storage is the concept of leptin resistance. Carrying excess body weight puts excess stress on all body systems. The hormone system is no different. In fact, carrying extra body weight can be the hardest on hormones. Leptin resistance occurs similarly to insulin resistance where when the body produces a hormone too much, or too often the receptor sites get worn out and stop recognizing and responding to the hormone. This is why weight gain and high leptin levels go together, even though leptin’s natural response in the body is to suppress appetite which one would assume would prevent weight gain. Leptin resistance is known to cause people to feel hungry quite often, or to never feel satisfied. This is why leptin injections worked really well on mice to decrease hunger, but backfired on humans.3 Maintaining a normal body weight and preventing excessive weight gain is one of the best ways to keep leptin resistance at bay. Here are more ways to keep leptin on your side.
How to Make Leptin Work For You:
- Eat foods that support good leptin levels such as unprocessed, whole foods. Avoid processed foods high in refined grains, sugar, artificial flavors, and synthetic ingredients
- Consider intermittent fasting where you lengthen your time without food and shorten your eating window within a 24 hour period. This means you are fasting 12-16 hours and consuming the normal calorie level within an 8-12 hour window. An example is stopping eating at 8 pm and having a first meal approximately 12 pm the next day which is a 16-hour fasting window and 8-hour eating window. Calorie restriction or skipping meals is not part of this concept.
- Eat mindfully to be able to listen to hunger cues
- Move your body and control your stress levels
We added this lesser known “hunger hormone” in with Ghrelin and Leptin because while it isn’t very well known, is immensely powerful and important in the entire hunger, satiety, and blood sugar regulation equation. GLP-1 stands for Glucagon-Like Peptide-1. GLP is so important because it is like the boss of insulin. It is produced in the gut and it regulates how insulin is secreted. It reduces the appetite and slows food from moving out of the stomach to help us feel fuller longer (satiety). In some respects, it is a bit of a combined effect of Leptin and Ghrelin.
GLP-1 can improve the body’s secretion of insulin sensitivity, so there are many different drugs that try to improve upon this through a medication. Some medications are made to act on the GLP-1 receptor sites decreasing hunger, affecting weight loss, and improving blood sugars in diabetes. However, these drugs have side effects and do not always have the intended outcome. What is commonly seen is a combination of GLP-1,4 insulin, and leptin resistance in which medications seeking to increase production of any of these hormones may not work because more is not necessarily better in the case of hormones. More of a hormone cannot increase the cells ability to absorb it if resistance is occuring. GLP-1 is generally well regulated by the body when insulin, leptin, and ghrelin are functioning well. The reverse is true, when the other hormones are out of balance or resistance is occuring– GLP-1 will not function properly when insulin, leptin, ghrelin are not working properly.
How to Make GLP-1 Work For You:
- Good sleep5 is one of the best ways to keep GLP-1 on track and in a useful cycle
- Manage stress
- Maintain good insulin sensitivity
- Maintain a healthy set point weight to prevent increased leptin levels and leptin sensitivity
Now, you may be wondering about insulin. It’s come up in each of the 3 hunger hormones discussed above and each of them working for you depends on good insulin levels. Insulin deserves (and it will get) its own article because it is so important in hormone balance, weight management, and inflammation control. Insulin is the hormone needed to get glucose (energy) into the cells. High insulin levels are a result of high carbohydrate diets, eating often, stress, poor sleep, and other hormone imbalances.
When insulin levels are consistently high, more leptin is released for the purpose of being less hungry and eating less. BUT, when insulin resistance is occuring, more insulin is produced which triggers more leptin. The extra leptin eventually causes the leptin receptors to become resistant like insulin receptors so now you have leptin resistance on top of insulin resistance– bad news.
Ghrelin and insulin have many different connections, but most importantly is how insulin, ghrelin, and leptin do not follow their logical patterns in most overweight people. As weight loss occurs, and as weight gain occurs, there are a wide variety of results in human studies. This is suggested to be from the ways in which resistance to leptin, insulin, and potentially ghrelin all can occur in some people but not others.
This is another reason why a certain diet may work brilliantly for one person and be a complete disaster for another. The bottom line is that when you are significantly overweight, all these signals of hunger and fullness go haywire and you need to work with a functional medicine practitioner who knows where to look to find the haywire signaling and how to get it rebooted.
Preventing Haywire Hunger Hormones
If you didn’t notice, many of the ways in which you keep insulin, leptin, ghrelin, and GLP-1 on your side are the same. These hormones are so interconnected that each will benefit from these lifestyle shifts.
Eat whole, real, unprocessed food
Processed sugar, flours (even gluten-free flours), food additives, and synthetics are one of the biggest disrupters of hunger hormones. While these likely will not need to be completely off limits to most people, they simply cannot be the foundation of the foods you eat and still maintain weight and hormone balance. People who are actually quite skinny but experiencing insulin resistance, infertility, and other hormone imbalances are so because of poor quality of foods they are eating. Infertility and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) does not only occur in overweight females and food quality is a big part of these hormone situations.
Decrease carbohydrate levels as directed
We say “as directed” here because there is not a one size fits all carbohydrate level. Some are led to believe that the lower the carbohydrate the better, but particularly for females who are still menstruating, higher carbohydrate levels are usually needed during certain times in their cycle. This is why in general, very low carbohydrate eating like the Ketogenic diet works better long term for men than women. However, most people are generally eating more carbohydrates and less quality fat than their bodies need. A general rule of thumb carbohydrate level is to get your daily carbohydrate level under 150g daily, but not drop below 75g daily without working with a practitioner to be sure your other hormones can handle a lower level of carbs. For many people, this shift in carbohydrates can be as simple as cutting the serving size of carbohydrate foods on your plate in ½ and doubling the serving of non-starchy vegetables. This simple swap and take a big load off your hunger hormone system.
Eat more high quality fats
High quality fats include avocado, avocado oil, olives, olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed/organic butter, and nut butters (except peanut butter). Increasing these foods while decreasing carbohydrate levels can work wonders for the hunger hormone cycles and prevent insulin and leptin resistance. Fats to avoid are processed seed oils like corn, peanut, soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, and canola oil. These are generally found in processed foods and almost all restaurants cook with them. Other fats to avoid are artificial butter spreads and margarine. These products where a giant human experiment during the low fat days beginning in the 1950s and the empirical data and quality research as clearly and fervently determined these are definitively detrimental to your health.
Managing stress/cortisol levels
This is always one of those topics that are “easier said than done,” but that tension does not negate its importance. When you talk to practitioners and dive into the research- everyone, every time discussed the importance of managing stress. We all know we can’t make stress go away, but many people are still blindly living in a chronic high-stress life. When the level of work stress, home stress, relationship stress, and financial stress is high- all the time, the body will suffer. Managing stress is sometimes doing hard soul work, soul healing, and relationship work, but it is also learning ways to get your body dialed down into a rest and reset place. The ideas of quality sleep, meditation, nature, moving your body and spiritual practices are a health necessity, not just a good idea for other people.
Optimal quantity and quality of sleep
Similar to managing stress, is the need for good sleep. All the research points to it. There are endless resources for sleep hygiene, but at the end of the day, you have to choose to get to bed on time. If you cannot get to sleep or stay asleep, you can get support from a functional medicine practitioner and essential oils to get quality sleep. If you have young kids that still wake up at night and need you, consider where you can trade time with a spouse to get a nap, or trade full night’s sleep.
For most people who are significantly overweight or have pronounced hormone imbalances, these lifestyle changes above will not be the only intervention needed. However, these lifestyle changes are the foundation, ground zero, home base, etc for preventing insulin and leptin resistance. This means even when more strategic interventions like lab work, nutritional supplementation, IV nutrition, etc are needed, these lifestyle changes still have to happen. Regardless of where you are in your understanding of your hormone status or where you are in your readiness to make the leap to working with a functional medicine practitioner to really get optimal balance of your hormones, you can start today making improvement in the areas above.
1 The function of leptin in nutrition, weight, and physiology
2 Leptin, thyrotropin, and thyroid hormones in obese/overweight women before and after two levels of energy deficit.
3 Leptin, ghrelin, and weight loss.
4 Impairment of GLP1-induced insulin secretion: role of genetic background, insulin resistance and hyperglycaemia.
5 Acute sleep deprivation delays the glucagon-like peptide 1 peak response to breakfast in healthy men