What are ghrelin and leptin, and why are these hunger hormones important?

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balancing leptin and ghrelinAsk most people what they know about hormones and they’ll instantly start chattering about sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. However, there are about 50 different hormones in the human body, and all of them play important roles in your health and in normal bodily function.

For instance, stress hormone cortisol helps your body function optimally in times of stress, while sleep hormone melatonin regulates your sleep patterns and wards off disease. But when it comes to hunger and your eating behavior, the hormones ghrelin and leptin are responsible for telling you when you feel hungry, and when it’s time to stop eating, respectively.

Can you imagine what would happen to your body if ghrelin and leptin were imbalanced? If ghrelin was imbalanced, you’d either never feel hungry, or you’d be hungry all the time. If leptin was imbalanced, you’d either never eat as much as your body needs, or you might end up overeating.

An imbalance in ghrelin and leptin can lead to junk food cravings and overeating, and cause weight gain and obesity. Just like individuals with type 2 diabetes develop a resistance to insulin, those who struggle with weight gain and obesity develop a resistance to ghrelin and leptin — resulting in poor nutrition choices. So, what can you do to regulate these hunger hormones?

Start exercising regularly

Exercise naturally helps regulate all the hormones in your body — including leptin and ghrelin. Start exercising on a regular basis, and pretty soon you’ll find yourself thinking about things other than food. When you do become legitimately hungry, your body may find itself wanting healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, and sources of lean protein. These types of healthy “cravings” will occur naturally as your body’s hormones start shifting back into balance. Pretty cool, right?

Get more sleep

A large percentage of Americans tend to underestimate the importance of sleep. Lack of sleep won’t give your body the time it needs to heal itself and produce hormones important to your health. Do whatever it takes to improve your sleeping environment as needed to promote a good night’s rest — whether it involves buying new, comfortable sheets or a set of blackout curtains to keep out sunlight. If you’re having problems falling asleep, talk to your healthcare provider about using melatonin supplements as a natural sleep aid that help you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep longer.

Eat healthy, whole foods

Stop buying boxed foods and packaged meals and consume more whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and lean meats (chicken, turkey). Whole foods are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, and a wealth of other nutrients that can naturally help improve your body’s hormonal balance. Processed foods often lack nutritional value, and contain additives and preservatives that promote weight gain.

Ghrelin and weight-loss surgery

Many weight-loss surgeons say that cutting away the portion of the stomach that controls ghrelin reduces your hunger cravings. This has never made sense to me: won’t the body compensate for the loss of ghrelin and face a heightened risk for nutritional deficiency? Can the removal of ghrelin cause a negative ripple effect on your health? This study published in a 2008 issue of Endocrinology found that a decrease in ghrelin can prevent your body from being able to naturally relax, and increases your risk for high blood pressure. Would you rather keep your hormones intact and lose weight safely and naturally? Or would you rather have bariatric surgery and increase your risk for other health problems down the road? What do you think?

The takeaway

There are countless health websites and healthcare practices that say that regulating your body’s leptin and ghrelin levels can help you lose weight. The consensus seems to be that if you want to lose weight and become healthier in a natural manner, try exercising, getting more sleep, and improving your nutrition.

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