Some of the newest buzz in the weight loss world surrounds a naturally occurring hormone called leptin.
What in the world is this mysterious hormone and why have you never heard of it before now?
Do you know what role leptin plays in weight loss and weight management and how you can make lifestyle changes that will set you firmly on the path to wellness?
Let’s examine what leptin does in the body and how it affects weight loss, hunger, and staying fuller for longer…and determine what every day changes YOU can make to make sure the way your body uses this important hormone the right way.
What is Leptin?
Leptin is a hormone that is produced in the body by adipose cells (fat cells). Leptin plays a role in mediating the long-term regulation and balance of the body’s energy.
This type of regulation factors into weight loss and weight management in either one of two ways:
- by acting to suppress the appetite and burn reserved fat that is stored in the fat tissue
- stimulating a feeling of hunger and need to eat.
Let me help you understand exactly how leptin plays a role in our bodies...
Think of the brain as something similar to the thermostat in your house. When the thermostat senses the temperature getting too low (or too high), it turns the heat on (or off), which results in a heating or cooling of the house.
Similarly, as the brain senses that the levels of leptin in the bloodstream are high or low, it stimulates a feeling full when the levels of leptin are high, and a feeling of hunger when leptin levels are low.
This is a very simplified version of how the body regulates its stores of energy.Under normal circumstances, the amount of leptin circulating in the bloodstream is connected to how much fat tissue there is in the body. The more fat tissue there is, the more leptin there will be, letting the body know that there are enough fat reserves.
There is a regular, not-so-noticeable cycle involving leptin. Fat tissue releases leptin, alerting the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that responds to leptin levels) that the body is not requiring extra energy and doesn’t need food, creating a feeling of feeling full and satisfied. When this happens, the feeling of hunger goes away and you don’t feel the need to eat.
For many people, this is an effective, properly functioning loop within the body, signaling the body to eat when it needs energy, and stop eating or not feel hungry when all your calorie demands have been met. Although, each person has a slightly different limit, or point, at which leptin is released, determined primarily by genetics.
What Happens When You Have Leptin Resistance?
As obesity is nearing epidemic levels, more urgent attention has been focused on the potential underlying causes and cures. No longer is obesity considered simply a matter of willpower or lack of discipline. Obesity is a complex disease state involving numerous variables, many of which are still being discovered.
Studies suggest that much like some people develop insulin resistance, which affects the way in which the body is able to respond to glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream, people may also develop leptin resistance.
Leptin resistance occurs when the amount of leptin circulating in the bloodstream is at the point at which the brain should respond, but the actual response is woefully unable to do so. If the brain does not recognize and respond to leptin, it cannot signal to the body that it has enough fat. Interestingly, research indicates that there may be a link between obesity and leptin resistance.
Obese people have a high amount of leptin floating around in the bloodstream, but that signal is not reachingthe brain, so the feeling of hunger persists despite there being ample energy in the body stored as fat tissue. The reasons for this resistance are not yet completely understood. It is highly likely that more than one factor is at play when determining the cause of obesity.
Something else to be aware of regarding leptin resistance is that increased leptin levels are associated with an increase in insulin resistance as well as the development of cardiovascular disease. Insulin resistance is considered a precursor to developing diabetes, so this link cannot be under-emphasized. The link to cardiovascular disease is also alarming as cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women. It will be important as research continues to be done to explore the link between leptin, glucose regulation, and cardiovascular disease.
In addition to being a part of the cycle of hunger, leptin also appears to have a reward cycle component to it. When leptin levels are low, hunger increases. When you eat, food feels like a reward, and eventually, leptin levels rise again, and the body is satisfied. In leptin-resistant people, the reward system goes haywire, and rather than feeling satisfied with the rise in leptin in the body, you still feel hungry. This vicious cycle, and the fake feeling of hunger that is felt, creates an ongoing artificial need for food.
The result? Obesity.
How to Combat Leptin Resistance
The only true way to find out if you are leptin resistant is to see a healthcare provider for a blood test. Your health care practitioner will likely run a series of tests on you to determine what else may be going on (including total cholesterol, HDL/LDL, blood glucose, and triglycerides to name a few). If you suspect that you might be leptin resistant but have not confirmed it yet, there are some ways that you can effect positive changes in your lifestyle to help put yourself in a better position if you are in fact, leptin resistant.
Take a good hard look at your current diet. As mentioned earlier, leptin resistance creates an imbalance where the body still feels hungry, despite having enough fat.
Make sure that what you are feeding your body is as fresh and nutritious as possible. Include high fiber fruits and vegetables to help create a physical feeling of fullness. Choose healthy, lean proteins to round out your nutritional needs. Whenever possible avoid foods high in sugar, processed foods, and simple carbohydrates. These foods, particularly foods high in sugar, create an unhealthy addiction to sugar.
The incredible amount of sugar that is hidden in everything from processed tomato sauces to processed yogurts is actually changing our palate so that naturally sweet (no sugar added) foods no longer taste “sweet” to many people. Examine the amount of hidden sugar in your current diet, and see where you can make small changes to eliminate or minimize it.
Does Inflammation Affect Leptin Hormones?
Inflammation is a buzzword in health and wellness today. There is some indication that inflammation may play a role in weight gain and obesity. Inflammation may be one of the culprits interfering with leptin reaching the brain.
Look into foods that naturally fight inflammation. There is promising research that shows reducing the inflammatory response in the body can support better health across a variety of disease states. Choose darker fruits and vegetables that follow the colors in the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple). These fruits and vegetables have incredibly high amounts of anti-oxidants, which flight inflammation.
Other inflammation-fighting food sources are nuts and spices, such as:
Omega 3 Fatty acids are also known to be inflammation fighters, like:
- Brussels sprouts
Some non-plant based omega 3 fatty acids. The best sources of omega 3s are cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Losing weight is no easy task. There is no magic bullet that works for everyone. What we know is that there are a variety of factors that contribute to obesity. While researchers are hard at work to figure out different angles to best approach weight management, we each need to work on the variables that are under our control. Making modest changes in your diet and adding in some regular exercise may seem daunting at first, but over time, can put your body on the road to better health and wellness. Take it one step at a time. While more is to be learned about leptin resistance, there are only positive health benefits to be gained by incorporating healthier, inflammation fighting foods, and eliminating unnecessarily added sugars.