In particular, there is one hormone that researchers refer to as the “master hormone” for controlling body weight. It’s called leptin, a hormone produced by your body’s fat cells.
Over time, people can become resistant to leptin’s effects. This is called leptin resistance, and is thought to be the main reason for excess fat gain.
How Does Leptin Work?
All hormones have a particular target action and target location in the body. For leptin, its target is a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Leptin is known as the “starvation hormone”. Think of leptin as a fat monitor. If leptin is working properly, the brain informs the body that you have sufficient fat stores, therefore you don’t need to eat. Leptin basically controls how much you eat and helps you burn calories at a normal rate. It is a regulator—it keeps you from starving, but it also keeps you from overeating.
The way it works is pretty simple:
In starvation mode, if we don’t eat, our body fat stores decrease. Leptin decreases too, and prompts us to eat more. It also helps to restrict the calories we burn so that we burn less. On the other hand, when you do eat, your body fat increases; leptin goes up and tells your brain to eat less and burn more calories.
The issue is that leptin was designed to work in “caveman” times, when it was much more likely that you would starve due to lack of available food. With our modern world of processed foods, trans fats, and a fast food establishment on every corner, this is no longer the case.
Obesity is definitely a problem of modern times, and it causes problems with leptin. The more body fat you have, the more leptin you produce. Remember that each fat cell produces leptin, so very obese people have a lot of fat cells and therefore produce very high levels of leptin.
If leptin were working properly in these individuals, their brains would be telling them not to eat because it would detect the fat stores. As a result, they’d never get hungry.
The Leptin Signal
But what happens if your leptin signal has gone haywire? The body has a whole lot of circulating leptin, so why isn’t the brain detecting it?
Basically, if the brain fails to detect the leptin signal, it still thinks you’re starving, so it prompts you to eat, and eat, and eat. It also prompts you to not burn calories, which is a big double whammy. Your brain is literally changing your physiology—the way your body functions—all in an attempt to replenish the fat that your brain thinks is missing.
How Does A Person Become Leptin Resistant?
High levels of leptin seem to cause the resistance. The human body was never designed to carry as much excess weight as many people are carrying today. The brain doesn’t know what to do with all the leptin. When you are obese, you also have a high level of circulating free fatty acids, and initial research shows that these elevated bloodstream levels may interfere with the brain’s ability to recognize leptin signals. Inflammation is also signaled from the hypothalamus, and these signals may interfere with leptin signals.
How Do I Fix This?
Leptin is sending your body strong signals to eat, and for most people, it is next to impossible to use willpower to overcome those signals. Diets are not very effective; they might work for a while, but typically don’t have good long-term results. If you lose weight, you are certainly reducing your fat stores, and that reduces leptin. Unfortunately, though, you still may have leptin resistance, even though the amount of leptin is lower. Resistance is resistance, whether you have a lot or a little.
Is there a test for leptin resistance? If you have excess fat, particularly belly fat, you are probably leptin resistant.
Can you prevent it? There are several preventative steps you can take:
- Lower your triglyceride level. High triglycerides in the blood interfere with your body’s ability to move leptin from the blood to the brain. Typically the best way to lower triglycerides is to lower your carbohydrate intake.
- Eat more protein. Replace carbs with protein. Automatic weight loss generally occurs when you greatly increase your protein intake, and researchers think that increased protein reduces leptin resistance too.
- Increase your fiber intake. Fiber helps move foods through the gut. It can help to improve the overall health of your intestinal tract.
- Get enough sleep. Better sleep helps with so many areas of health, and it can help decrease your leptin resistance, too.
- Get plenty of exercise. You don’t have to run a marathon. Any physical activity will help reverse leptin resistance.
If you’ve been doing none of these, you might have to make a fairly drastic lifestyle shift. Start with one, and when you get good at it, start another step. Before you know it, you’ll have a healthier lifestyle and your leptin system will be working like clockwork. And don’t be so hard on yourself either. Your obesity is not caused by you being lazy or lacking willpower. You are your hormones, and your obesity is biochemical in nature.
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