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Ghrelin: How to Control Your Hunger Hormone

Many people are unaware that hunger is controlled by hormones. When these hormones are out of balance, it can be difficult to control how much we eat as we often feel hungry even when our bodies do not actually need food. This article takes a close look at those hunger hormones and discusses some strategies for keeping them balanced.

When we think of hormones, oestrogen and testosterone are the two that often come to mind for women as they are well documented to play an important role in puberty and reproduction, as well as balancing the libido. In the case of men, it is often testosterone that first comes to mind. In fact, there are around 50 hormones that we know of, each performing various essential messaging tasks throughout the body.

The Hunger Hormones

One important hormone that anybody who wants to lose weight should know about is ghrelin. Ghrelin (the name is taken from its function as a Growth Hormone RELeasing peptide) is mostly produced in the gut and sent along to the brain as a messenger to let you know that it is time to eat. At the same time, it helps to increase stomach acid in preparation for digestion. When the body has taken in enough food energy, ghrelin levels decrease, letting the brain know that you are full and can stop eating. Higher levels of ghrelin correlate with a larger appetite.

Leptin (taken from the Greek word for 'thin') is equally important in regulating your hunger and acts in roughly the opposite way to ghrelin. Have you ever noticed that 'satiety', that feeling of fullness, is not just an absence of hunger, but a separate sensation all on its own? That feeling is triggered by leptin being created in your small intestine and travelling to your brain, giving a 'stop' signal. While ghrelin causes you to feel hungry, leptin causes you to feel full.

It is logical that at this point somebody who wants to lose weight would think that it is desirable to remove ghrelin entirely or supercharge your leptin production and thus remove the urge to eat. But it is important to remember that, although we are talking about hunger here, hormones and neurotransmitters often perform multiple essential functions throughout the body, many of which we are yet to identify. So by inhibiting one function, you would potentially be inhibiting numerous other important tasks that are essential to your health. Some of the other functions ghrelin is known to have a role in are heart rate, blood pressure, insulin secretion and glucose metabolism. Even if ghrelin's only job was to signal hunger, it's vitally important that the body has a means of telling you when it is running low on energy and needs to be replenished.

Striking a Balance

As with any hormone, when ghrelin becomes out of balance, complications can ensue. Poor diet and lifestyle choices can be a major disruptor of ghrelin levels, causing cravings and overeating that, over time, can lead to many health issues. Remember, when ghrelin is sent to the brain it manfests as hunger, so an imbalance can be a contributor to overeating and weight gain.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, dieting has been found to increase ghrelin levels, which may be a reason why diets rarely lead to long-term weight loss and dieters often find that they end up heavier in the long-term. Ghrelin is also known to be released in higher levels when the stress response is activated, making stress another imbalancing factor and potential cause of weight gain.

An unfortunate side effect of being overweight is that people often become leptin-resistant, meaning that they do not receive the same 'stop' signals that a non-leptin resistant person would, further compounding their difficulties with weight loss.

Ghrelin and leptin both operate in the same area of the brain and have a truly symbiotic relationship, so it is important that both are regulated correctly if your body is to manage its energy requirements and fat storage.

Tips for Balancing Hunger Hormones

  1. Reduce your stress - As mentioned above, stress causes your body to release ghrelin, so less stress means less ghrelin. Stress is a big topic and one that I cover in much more detail here and here. I have also created this short video presentation that offers many stress management techniques you may find useful. Long-term stress causes many health problems beyond weight gain and it is worth making an investment in your own health and happiness by taking the time to understand how to manage your relationship with it.

  2. Avoid diets - Crash diets are known to affect your ghrelin levels negatively, leading to long-term weight gain. When I discuss 'diet' with my clients and here on the site, I am referring to the lifelong eating habits that we develop and maintain to achieve optimum, sustainable health. Many people are seduced by the celebrity endorsements or short-term losses promised by the latest fad diet, but if you want to maintain a healthy weight, without wrecking your hormonal balance and yo-yoing back up to your previous weight, healthy lifelong habits are the only way to go. Please feel free to look around the website for numerous free resources on healthy eating, or get in touch to arrange a consultation if you feel that you would benefit from more personalised support.

  3. Eat protein with every meal - Protein has been found to decrease the production of ghrelin, while increasing leptin production, so people who have a portion of healthy protein (such as lean meat, fish, eggs, pulses) with each meal tend to feel fuller for longer than those who don't. Many people associate protein with weight gain but what we are looking for here is hormonal balance. It is much more desirable to have a high-protein healthy meal and feel full for the next 3 - 4 hours, than to eat an unsatisfying carb-heavy meal and be fighting the urge to snack for the rest of the day.

  4. Include plant-based fibre - Many fruit, vegetables and whole-grains are high in fibre, which helps to regulate digestion, while maintaining healthy gut bacteria.

  5. Get more sleep - Sleep deprivation affects your ability to regulate ghrelin and leptin. It is important that you try to average 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Sleep is not only downtime for the body and brain, it is a time where vital repairing and rebuilding take place. You may feel fine on 5 or 6 hours but that does not change the fact that you could be doing long-term damage to your brain and body that may only manifest further down the line, including in the form of weight gain and difficulty controlling your appetite.

  6. Cut out junk food - Healthy, balanced meals support the balanced release of ghrelin and leptin, letting us know when we are hungry and full, according to the body's moment-to-moment needs. However, junk foods, such as crisps, sweets, fizzy drinks, chocolate, white bread, pizza, fried food etc tend to circumvent your hunger hormones, acting directly on the brain's pleasure centres and making you crave more, regardless of need. Have you ever noticed how that pleasantly full feeling you get after a nutritious meal doesn't happen when you fill up on chocolate? That's because your brain isn't receiving the leptin signals to let it know that you have had enough.

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