For many women, thinking about hormones might initially spark thoughts of period cramps, irritability, and ovulation. After all, hormonal changes are at the root of many monthly bodily changes. But fertility hormones make up only one category of hormones in your body. Did you know that you have hormones that also control your hunger?
Hormones, in general, are natural chemical messengers. Hunger hormones are helpful couriers that take signals from your stomach, intestines, and fat tissue to your brain and back again, constantly updating you on the nutrients you have and those you still need. Your hunger hormones also affect how hungry or satiated you feel throughout the day.
What Are Hunger Hormones?
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), feelings of hunger or fullness are directed by a complicated interchange between hormones in your body. These hormones sense when you eat, when you're full, when you've had a lot of sugar, and when you're hangry - you know, that feeling you get when hunger gets the best of you and crabbiness takes over.
As your stomach goes through cycles of filling and emptying throughout the day, your hunger hormones direct traffic for all the nutrients you have put down the hatch. There are different types of hunger hormones, and each has a role in the complex system of eating and digestion.
Types of Hunger Hormone
Your body doesn't have just one chemical that tells it when to eat and when to stop. Instead, a handful of hormones work together in a delicate balance to tell you when it's snack time.
A 2013 research review demonstrated that a hormone released from the gut, called ghrelin, has multiple jobs: fat deposition (where fat goes), food intake, and the release of growth hormone.
Grehlin is also in charge of making you hungry. It decreases when you are full and increases when your stomach empties. Ghrelin also regulates your body's energy use and affects insulin production. Insulin is a hormone that allows your body to use sugar for energy.
The NIH states that leptin is released from fat cells. Like ghrelin, leptin regulates insulin production and energy usage. Unlike ghrelin, leptin helps prevent hunger and affects metabolism and immune function.
Leptin comes from fat tissue but primarily works in the brain. According to the NIH, this versatile hormone goes on to affect:
- Emotional state
- Growth hormone release
- Reproductive function (specifically the release of sperm/eggs)
- Thyroid function
Wow! Leptin stays busy. While this hormone does not carry full responsibility for all of these functions, it certainly plays an important role.
Glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP1) is an intestinal hormone that boasts many similar effects as ghrelin and leptin. Aside from having a weird name, GLP1 does a ton for digestion and weight regulation:
- Appetite regulation
- Levels of sugar in your blood
- Insulin secretion
- Stomach emptying
At this point, you may have noticed some overlap between these hormones as they work together to digest our food and put it to good use.
Cortisol is known as "the stress hormone." When you feel stressed, your cortisol level climbs. As it turns out, your cortisol levels also have a huge impact on your appetite and also the kinds of food you want to eat, according to a study from 2017.
The study found that chronic stress was a good predictor of future weight gain. So if you want to control this hormone, just don't be stressed. Easy, right?! Stress management doesn't come easily to many of us, so we'll suggest ways to learn how to manage stress a little later.
High cortisol levels make you want to eat - a lot. Not only are you extra hungry, but high cortisol also makes you want cake instead of carrots and gummy bears instead of greens.
Insulin is a hormone that is excreted by the pancreas - a lumpy yellow glob under your stomach. If you are unfamiliar with what insulin does, here's a crash course provided by the Endocrine Society (ES).
As you take in carbohydrates or sugar, the amount of sugar in your blood increases. This rise signals the pancreas to release insulin, which helps the body convert sugar into energy. Insulin has the power to make you feel hungry and make sweet treats taste sweeter. If your insulin levels climb too high, you want to eat more than your body needs.
As you can probably tell by now, our body is a bustling metropolis overrun with chemicals and compounds doing different jobs: some fighting against each other, some working together to keep our bodies moving.
How to Control Hunger Hormones
According to experts, ghrelin only decreases slightly after eating, sometimes tricking your brain into thinking you need to eat more. Sometimes, that might lead you to eat more than you need. So how do you control this hormone to prevent that from happening?
Remember, these hormones are part of a very complex system. However, you have some power to help the right hormone become more potent at the right time to help you reach your diet or nutrition goals.
Choose Healthy Foods
The 2013 research review tells us that what and when you choose to eat both play an important part in how well your hormones signal to your brain that you are full.
- Complex carbohydrates: Complex carbs break down more slowly in your system, which helps your hunger hormones "catch up" to how full you are. You can get these good carbs from foods like whole grains, peas, and beans.
- High-fiber foods: Foods high in fiber expand in your stomach and intestines, and as those organs stretch, they signal to your hunger hormones that you've had enough.
- Protein: Protein increases GLP1 levels which helps you feel full faster.
- Don't skip meals: Occasionally, you might miss a meal, but try not to make it a habit. Some studies show that when you fast (don't eat), your leptin all but disappears - because you're hungry! You want to try and avoid hitting too many extremes with your hunger hormones.
- Say no to crash diets: The same principle works with extreme dieting. If your body gets desperate for food, your hunger hormones will go into overdrive. Even if you can lose that weight fast, you risk gaining it all back quickly.
Participate in Regular Exercise
Among its many other benefits, exercise helps regulate your hunger hormones. Getting your heart pumping and muscles working will help you lose weight and it also helps your body know more accurately when and how much to eat.
Stress increases your cortisol level. You may remember reading earlier that cortisol influences not only your appetite but the foods you crave. You can work to decrease the stress response in your body with deep breathing, exercise, and meditation.
Long-term stress particularly affects your appetite. So if you can find ways to manage the stress life throws at you, it will help you not only now, but also in the long term.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep-deprived people want to eat. If you're not getting enough sleep, your hunger hormones can get unbalanced and prompt you to eat when you don't need to. Not to mention, if you sleep more, you have less time to feel hungry! Double-win.
Consider Taking Sensitizers
Leptin, you may remember, helps control your appetite. But your body can develop something called leptin resistance, where it simply doesn't want to listen to bossy old leptin anymore. According to a review article by Frontiers in Endocrinology, "Leptin resistance is characterized by reduced satiety [feeling full], over-consumption of nutrients, and increased total body mass."
This article suggests that using leptin therapies and sensitizers (a prescription taken in tablet form) can help get your leptin back in balance and functioning as it should, helping to lose weight alongside a healthy diet and exercise. Sensitizers are not a "get skinny" quick pill but more like a little helper to nudge your hormone levels in the right direction as you make other lifestyle changes.
Studies have not proven the effectiveness of sensitizers, so be sure to discuss any new medication or supplement with your doctor before taking it.
Hunger Hormones and Weight Loss
Weight loss can feel discouraging. No matter what you might see on social media ads or television commercials, losing weight is a process that takes time and involves permanent lifestyle changes. And now you know that a complex relationship between various hormones can complicate your eating habits. If weight loss is your goal, all of this information can sound very intimidating and might want to make you give up before you start.
First of all, know that you are in good company. Lots of people find trying to lose weight frustrating. But if you try one change at a time, and don't push yourself too hard too fast, you may find you can adjust more easily, and the changes you make will last much longer. Now that you are aware of your hunger hormones and all the hard work they do in your body, hopefully, you can use that knowledge to help guide your weight loss goals!