Introduction to Hunger Hormones: Leptin and Ghrelin
Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers, sending signals into the bloodstream and tissues. They affect a wide variety of processes within the body, such as growth and development, metabolism, mood, body temperature, sexual function, and reproduction.
When you think about hormones, what may come to mind are the two sex hormones, estrogen and testosterone. In addition to those two, there are actually more than 200 hormones in the body. The two we will be focusing on are leptin and ghrelin, which are known as “hunger hormones” as they trigger hunger cues in the body.
Leptin and ghrelin are the two major hormones responsible for controlling appetite, feelings of hunger/fullness, and maintaining weight. Leptin is commonly referred to as the “satiety hormone” and ghrelin as the “hunger hormone.”
Leptin is mainly produced by the fat cells in our bodies, although our stomach also produces some while we are eating. Once produced, leptin circulates in the bloodstream and travels up to our brain to tell us when we are full, which is why it is referred to as the “satiety hormone.” It plays a huge role in long-term regulation of energy. It affects how many calories we consume and burn, and the levels of fat we store in our body.
Ghrelin is mainly produced by the stomach, with small amounts also made in our small intestine and pancreas. It sends signals to our brain to tell us when we are hungry, which is how it earned the nickname “hunger hormone.” Part of its major functions include helping our pituitary gland (pea-sized gland at the base of the brain) release growth hormones and controlling how our body releases insulin.
A Word About Leptin and Ghrelin Resistance
A resistance to leptin or ghrelin happens when our cells are not reacting appropriately to the signals being sent to our brain. When this happens, both glucose and insulin stay in our blood longer, which makes it difficult to lose fat.
Additionally, when the brain doesn’t react appropriately to its “hunger” and “fullness” cues, it becomes easy to overeat and hard to detect genuine hunger. Because of these complications, resistance to leptin and/or ghrelin plays a huge role in developing obesity. Below are some suggestions on how to keep these hunger hormones in check so we don’t develop a resistance to them.
Ways to Keep Hunger Hormones Balanced:
- Eat regular meals around the same time every day. Eating regularly helps to prevent wide swings in appetite hormones and decrease the chances of overeating at a meal.
- Choose complex carbohydrates over simple ones. Complex carbohydrates contain fiber, while simple ones do not. Fiber helps to balance the hunger hormones. Additionally, eating too many simple carbohydrates will cause ghrelin levels to bounce back sooner after eating.
- Eat a breakfast high in protein. Not only does this help to balance hunger levels throughout the day, but protein has also been found to improve leptin sensitivity and reduce ghrelin levels.
- Get 7-8 hours of sleep. In a study on sleep, it was found that people who got less sleep had lower levels of leptin and higher levels of ghrelin.
- Eat a variety of all three macronutrients during meals and snacks. Protein, carbohydrates, and fats all stimulate different satiety hormones within the body. However, eating carbohydrates high in resistant (nondigestible) starch like oats, sweet potatoes, and lentils can also help boost feelings of satiety after eating.
- Eat meals with low energy density. Meaning, eat more food with less calories that fill the stomach. Low energy-dense diets have been linked with lower circulating levels of ghrelin.
- Drink enough water. While exact hydration needs vary between every individual and circumstance, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that around 11.5 cups of fluids a day for women and around 15.5 cups a day for men is adequate. Drinking water is another way to help increase volume in the stomach, which helps turn the ghrelin signal down.
- Eat ghrelin-suppressing foods during every meal. These foods include eggs, fat-free Greek yogurt, fish, poultry, and lean beef.
Understanding our hunger hormones and implementing small changes in our diet patterns can help keep us balanced. Balanced hormones can help us improve our health, manage our weight, and give us sustained energy throughout the day, enabling us to accomplish our daily goals and live with less health-related complications.
This article is for purely informational purposes only. If you suspect you are suffering from leptin and/or ghrelin resistance, it is advisable to consult an endocrinologist or other medical professional.