What do hormones have to do with your waist line? Turns out quite a bit!
Ever wonder if there’s more to the story of stubborn weight loss beyond what’s on your fork? Turns out, many of our hormones have a lot to do with not only how we metabolize and store our food and even how much we eat. Keep reading to learn about some of these major hormonal players!
Leptin is a hormone produced by our fat cells. It tells our brain we are full, thereby decreasing appetite. The more fat cells we have, the higher our leptin levels will be. While this might sound like a good thing (more leptin should equal feeling full for longer, right?), our cells develop what is known as leptin resistance, meaning that even though leptin is knocking on the cell’s door, the cell doesn’t hear the knock. This also means that satiety may not be triggered appropriately. The effect is that we are hungry for longer amounts of time and may not be able to tell when to put down the fork. We also know that leptin resistance can contribute to a slowed metabolism. Research suggests that leptin resistance is worsened by the inflammatory molecules released by fat cells. One study even found that wheat gluten may inhibit the binding of leptin to its’ receptors, but more research is needed to parse this out. Reducing inflammation by consuming adequate amounts of Omega 3s and other healthy fats and consuming an anti-inflammatory diet is a great way to combat leptin resistance.
Ghrelin, known as the “hunger hormone”, stimulates our appetite and increases our preference for sweet and fatty foods. This hormone rises before a meal and tapers off afterward; a rhythm which occurs around every 4 hours. Research suggests that filling up on fiber rich foods, proteins and healthy fats may help keep ghrelin levels normal.
Insulin is nicknamed the “fat storage hormone” and is secreted by the pancreas in the presence of elevated blood glucose levels. Its job is to usher glucose into the liver and muscle cells where it can be used for energy or stored for later use. Once those cells are full, excess glucose is stored as fat (triglycerides) in our adipose tissue. As long as circulating levels of insulin remain high, we have a hard time getting rid of stored fat. Eating fiber rich, high quality carbohydrates may help blunt the rise of blood sugar and insulin, helping to keep blood sugar stable.
Cortisol is one the major responders to a stressor. Cortisol’s job is to increase blood sugar so that it can go to our muscles or wherever energy is needed to help us respond to a threat. However, cortisol doesn’t differentiate between the stress of running from a predator and the stress of sitting in traffic. It also doesn’t care what happens to all that excess blood sugar after a crisis is over. Cortisol also wants fast fuel in case our tissues need it and increases cravings for sugary foods when we feel stressed. Chronically elevated cortisol levels due to repeated stressors in our daily life increases the risk of insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes and tells the body to store fat around our organs. Bottom line: the more sugar we have hanging around that our muscles don’t need, the more our bodies’ end up storing that excess in our fat cells. Meditation, exercise, deep breathing and practicing mindfulness or yoga have all been shown to lower cortisol levels. Additionally, eating an anti-inflammatory diet and stabilizing blood sugar levels will also help lower chronically elevated cortisol levels.
Dopamine is technically a neurotransmitter, but it has a direct role in interacting with our appetite hormones. Dopamine controls our reward and pleasure seeking centers in the brain. When we eat high fat and high sugar foods, dopamine is released. Habitually eating high fat and sugar foods can contribute to a negative cycle, because we feel good when we eat them, making us crave more and more. Research has found that overweight or obese individuals may actually have a blunted dopamine response due to overeating these types of food, and this in turn can stimulate continued reward seeking behavior through the overconsumption of high fat/high sugar foods. One way to help promote healthy levels of dopamine without the drawbacks of a high sugar diet, is to eat a protein rich breakfast. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and they are needed to synthesize dopamine. Eating protein at breakfast has been shown to increase dopamine levels and satiety levels as well.
So, what’s the takeaway? There are simple habit and lifestyle changes that we can implement to help balance these hormones. Try putting some of these habits into practice:
- Eat a high protein breakfast (Aim for 30 grams). High protein breakfast options might include eggs, oatmeal with egg whites or protein powder, plain Greek yogurt or cottage cheese or a protein smoothie
- Eat macronutrient balanced snacks. This means combining fiber, protein and healthy fats. An apple with 1 oz. cheese or almond butter, celery with peanut butter, a handful of walnuts or our Coconut Almond Granola with ½ cup plain Greek yogurt, raw veggies or seed/nut crackers with hummus.
- Add Omega 3s into your day. Inflammation can be an underlying contributor to leptin resistance. Eating fatty fish several times a week, and adding flaxseed and walnuts into your day can help increase these important essential fatty acids.
- Exercise regularly. Research has found that just 60 minutes of aerobic exercise reduces levels of ghrelin, higher levels of which increase appetite, and raises levels of its cousin, Peptide YY, which suppresses hunger. In a nutshell, exercise helps reduce appetite!
- Keep blood sugar balanced. Wild swings in blood sugar puts stress on your body, requires more insulin secretion (which can lead to insulin resistance and high blood sugar issues) and can even disrupt thyroid function. Fiber and protein both help keep blood sugar balanced so make sure to include at each of your