We have hormones in our bodies that stimulate our appetite and curb it. They are known as the hunger hormones….ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin makes you feel hungry, while leptin makes you feel full. The two are interconnected. You cannot derive the benefits from leptin, without understanding ghrelin and how it works in conjunction with leptin.
Ghrelin is the hunger hormone generated in your stomach. It tells you that you are hungry and that it is time for you to eat. You will be familiar with ghrelin as the “stomach growl” or the hunger pang you experience, when you have gone too long without food. It is thought to have served humans well, protecting us from famine for millions of years. In times of famine, this hunger hormone kept us focused on finding food to survive. Ghrelin also helped us to survive during famines, by causing fat to be stored in our abdomen.
Now ghrelin is thought to play a significant role in obesity. Because people are not familiar with its existence and how to regulate it, they have high levels of it. This stimulates their appetite, causing them to eat more food than their bodies require. Ghrelin, along with other hormones, causes the body to store excess food, as abdominal fat.
Ghrelin levels increase prior to meals and decrease after meals. Research suggests that ghrelin responds to your “normal” meal times – meaning the times when you normally eat your meals. If you are accustomed to having lunch at 12PM and circumstances have conspired for a later lunch, ghrelin levels will be high from 12PM until you eat. If you were accustomed to eating 5-6 small meals a day and you change your eating pattern to eating to just 3 meals a day, ghrelin levels will rise at the previous meal times. It is thought that it takes approximately 2 weeks for ghrelin to adjust to a change in eating pattern.
The two hunger hormones – ghrelin and leptin – are interconnected. I will cover leptin fully in another post. However there is an interconnection between ghrelin and your body’s major hormones – cortisol, thyroid and insulin.
In the presence of stress, your body produces increasing amounts of ghrelin, as well as cortisol. When stress is chronic, as it often is during menopause, excess levels of cortisol affects the functioning of your entire body, often resulting in the conditions of insulin resistance and hypothyroid. Stress is associated with eating. Higher levels of ghrelin stimulate your appetite, and you will eat more. High levels of cortisol, like high levels of ghrelin, causes fat to be stored around the mid-section.
A study has found that high levels of ghrelin slows your metabolism. This means that ghrelin interferes with the functioning of your thyroid hormone. A less than optimum functioning thyroid is associated with weight gain.
Both hunger hormones have a significant influence on the functioning of insulin. Ghrelin levels are high during times when your body is getting a reduced amount of food, like when you are dieting to lose weight. The decreased amount of food, brings about a drop in insulin levels, because the amount of insulin released depends on the amount of food you have eaten. The low insulin level causes a rise in ghrelin, which makes you hungry and you makes you want to eat.
Sleep patterns affect the levels of your hunger hormones. Your ghrelin level is low when you have a good night’s sleep. It is high when you dont sleep well. A study found that sleep deprivation was associated with an increase in the level of ghrelin, appetite, and hunger, when compared to a ten hour sleep. By and large, women do not sleep well during menopause. A sleep survey of 900 menopausal women showed that 79 percent of them said that they have trouble staying asleep, and 63 percent struggle just trying to fall to sleep. If you are experiencing disturbed sleep, your ghrelin level will be high.
What does all of this mean to you? If you want to lose weight or keep your weight from going up, you dont want to have high levels of ghrelin. You will have to learn how to manage the levels of hunger hormones in your body. I will discuss how to do this in another post.