Even though a lot of the time our bodies might feel a little bit out of whack, they actually function like a fine-tuned machine, with a huge variety of components and mechanisms working in harmony to help us breathe, move, function, and live. And one of the main mechanisms that influence how your body operates is the hormone, a regulatory substance that gives signals to your cells, tissues, and organs about how to behave.
One of the classes of hormones that have a key role in your daily life are the hunger hormones, namely the ghrelin, leptin, cortisol, and thyroid hormones. They influence your appetite, how much you eat, how much energy you have, how you store your energy, and how much you weigh. For that reason, if you’re experiencing fluctuations in weight and/or energy, or problems with inconsistent or inappropriate appetite, it’s highly likely that your hunger hormones are responsible. This article provides an overview of how to find and maintain a balance of your hunger hormones.
How Hormones Control Your Hunger and Appetite
Ghrelin is the hormone that makes you hungry. You can remember it by the sound ghrelin makes in your stomach: more ghrelin equals a growlin’ tummy. When you’re low on stored energy, fasting, or starving, your body will release more ghrelin, signaling to you that it’s time to eat. Your ghrelin levels tend to go up when you need to eat and decrease again after you’ve had some food.
It’s been theorized that obese people may suffer from high levels of ghrelin, meaning that their brain doesn’t stop feeling hungry even after they’ve had enough food. In fact, Prader-Willi Syndrome, a genetic obesity condition, is characterized by chronically high ghrelin levels, something that can cause overeating.
Leptin is secreted by the fat cells and is used to tell your body how much energy you have. It is a hormone that basically works in the opposite way that ghrelin does. It’s the one that suppresses appetite, telling you that you should stop eating. You can think of leptin as the “I’m full” signal.
The daily interplay between ghrelin and leptin is essentially the hormonal dance that controls your appetite. However, leptin also has a significant role in long-term weight regulation, going down in periods of starvation and being higher in the obese.
You may have heard the idea that stress can affect your weight. The key to that process lies in cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone. Cortisol is involved in regulating everything from salt to insulin to blood pressure and immunity.
When you feel stressed, your body releases more cortisol, increasing your blood sugar. It does so by breaking down carbohydrate stores in your liver and inhibiting insulin’s uptake of blood sugar, leaving more sugar in your bloodstream. The result is an increased readiness and ability to either fight or run away from the stressor (your fight or flight response).
If you’re experiencing chronic stress, your cortisol levels might stay consistently high, resulting in insulin resistance and high blood sugar. This can result in diabetes. It can also make you gain weight, as insulin plays a role in breaking down fat. Elevated insulin levels can prevent your body from being able to break down fat for energy, causing you to instead store it as body fat. That’s why stress is a risk factor for obesity.
It’s known that people with thyroid conditions, like hypothyroidism, often suffer concurrently from obesity. This is because the thyroid hormones TSH, T3, and T4 are directly involved in weight regulation. Hypothyroidism, or low levels of thyroid hormones, can cause low appetite, slowing of the metabolism, and weight gain. The opposite condition, hyperthyroidism, causes a too-fast metabolism and increased appetite, as well as potential weight loss.
Fundamental Appetite Interventions
So, how can you use all of this knowledge to your advantage? In what ways can you balance your hunger hormones to achieve your desired results, whether that is to keep your appetite consistent, improve your energy levels, or control your weight?
One of the fundamental ways that you can keep your hunger hormones functioning at optimal levels is to include exercise into your weekly routine. Regular exercise can improve leptin sensitivity, improve insulin sensitivity, and decrease ghrelin levels.
Don’t Overdo It On Simple Carbs
While we all love our sugary treats, the more carbohydrate-heavy your meals and snacks are, the faster your ghrelin levels will bounce back after you eat. That means you’ll get hungry again sooner and might end up eating more than you would otherwise.
Eat More Healthy Protein
In contrast, eating healthy sources of dietary protein, like legumes, can keep your ghrelin levels lower for longer after a meal, meaning you’ll be satiated for more time and have more energy.
Sleep has a major impact on your cortisol and ghrelin levels. Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis will help to decrease your cortisol and keep your ghrelin levels balanced and in check.
Another way to keep your levels of cortisol appropriate is to try and keep your stress to a minimum. That can mean many different lifestyle interventions ranging from limiting stress factors (decreasing your course load in school, working fewer hours, leaving the office at an appropriate time every day) to engaging in destressing behaviors (meditation, physical exercise, mindfulness).
Avoid Crash Diets
Drastically undereating or heavily restricting calories (otherwise known as crash dieting) will increase your ghrelin levels, making you feel hungrier. That’s why it’s important to slowly and reasonably reduce your calories if you are attempting weight loss. It will keep your ghrelin levels more consistent, allowing you to be able to maintain your diet in the long term.
The Bottom Line
Though the overabundance of opinions that you might hear about what you should eat and not eat, do and not do, in order to be at an ideal weight or feel your best might make it seem complicated, at the end of the day, keeping your appetite in check is actually rather simple, straightforward, and intuitive. All of the tips mentioned above fall under the general umbrella of living a healthy lifestyle. Get some exercise. Eat real, healthy foods. Sleep. Don’t overwork yourself or push yourself too hard. You’ll know you’re doing it right when you feel good. It’s that simple.