You’re typing swiftly on your keyboard, enjoying your tasty once-a-day snack, when you look up and realize that you’ve mindlessly eaten five snack bars in the last hour. You’ve even tried to revive your health journey by committing to a fitness regimen, but the increased hunger you feel after a workout causes you to eat more and more.
It’s not completely your fault that your hunger patterns are getting in the way of your health goals. Sometimes, the powers that be (read: hormones) can take over and throw your body (and your appetite) into hyperdrive. But understanding how your hormones – specifically, your “hunger hormones,” ghrelin and leptin – work can play a big part in helping you keep your hunger pangs and eating patterns under control.
What do you need to know about ghrelin?
Have you ever witnessed the uncontrollable child in the grocery store whose temper tantrum will know no end until he gets the treat he’s begging his parents for? Well, that’s pretty much how ghrelin works. Ghrelin is a hunger hormone that increases appetite and plays a major role in body weight.
Ghrelin is secreted when your stomach is empty (before a meal, for example), and works by sending signals to your brain (the hypothalamus, to be specific) that you’re hungry. But, a little like an incessant nagging child, ghrelin won’t just rest at sending a hunger signal to your brain. No, it’ll kind of nag away at you until you give your body what it wants, ie. some sustenance. The problem is that, without healthy options to reach for or portion control, it can be easy to let ghrelin take the reins when you start getting those hunger signals, and that leaves you with some less than ideal food choices on the books.
Okay, what about leptin?
Unlike the appetite-sparking hunger hormone ghrelin, leptin suppresses your cravings. It’s a hormone, made by fat cells, that regulates your energy and sends signals to your brain when you’re full. But we all know that our eyes sometimes have more power over our brains, which sometimes means letting food lead us to rash decisions that could impact our BMI later on.
Leptin is secreted in sync with fat cells; when fat mass increases, leptin levels go up and decrease hunger until weight loss occurs. So, the more fat you have, the greater the amount of leptin you have in your blood. The leptin hormone helps us to maintain our normal weight, but if you are trying to shed those extra pounds, that means it’s going to take more work to lose them.
How can you keep these hunger hormones in check?
For starters, sleep. If you’re someone who doesn’t necessarily prioritize sleep on the regular, researchers say that your lack of sleep could lower your leptin and increase ghrelin, causing you to crave more carbs, salt, and sugar. If you want to optimize your levels of leptin, don’t compromise a good night’s sleep; your body will receive signals that you are in resting mode and automatically cut down on your cravings. So, next time you think about staying up until 3 am and waking up at 6 am for work or an exam, think about the impact it will have on your hunger patterns and your weight loss goals. (Just don’t be tempted to use this as an excuse to sleep in every morning and skip all your life goals.)
You always want to make sure that you’re always conscious of what you put into your body on a regular basis. When we eat, messages flow throughout our body to inform our brain when we are full. Unfortunately, our bodies receive mixed signals when we devour fatty meals, causing us to eat more calories and store more fat. Researchers suggest a healthy diet rich in good carbohydrates (like whole grains and legumes) or a high-protein diet that will control ghrelin. Include vegetables in your daily food consumption to receive your necessary vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants, too.
At the end of the day, we might feel like our hunger and cravings can get the better of us from time to time, but understanding how our hormones affect our behavior and eating patterns is the key to staying in control.