The “Hunger” Game

We have all experienced it; that gnawing sensation in the stomach that signals that we need to eat. If we wait a bit too long, we may experience headaches, a lack of energy, dizziness, difficulty focusing and even shakiness. We grab a snack or a meal and the symptoms subside, only to return again within a short period of time.

What is going on?

In the simplest of terms (there are many other hormones and factors at play), your stomach, when empty, releases a hormone known as ghrelin which tells your brain that it’s time to eat. Another hormone, leptin, is released by the fat cells to let the brain know that it’s time to stop eating and start burning fat to create energy. In a perfect world, and in a perfectly functioning body, these two hormones are in balance and work together in perfect harmony.

However, there are many factors that can disrupt this delicate balance and cause increased hunger, increased weight gain, and an overall decline in health and wellbeing. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Leptin Resistance. Since leptin is released by fat cells, if a person has excess fat tissue, they tend to have higher levels of leptin circulating in the body. When the leptin receptors in the body and brain are constantly exposed to high levels of circulating hormone, they become desensitized, and don’t respond normally. A person with leptin resistance never experiences the sensation of “fullness” and will keep eating. Sadly, a leptin-resistant person’s body enters starvation mode, as it’s unaware of the circulating leptin, so it tries to decrease energy expenditure and metabolism…which further increases weight gain and can lead to obesity and associated health issues.

Consuming Sugar and Processed Foods. Common table sugar, sucrose, is used in many processed foods and sugar-sweetened foods and beverages. Sucrose, when compared with glucose, a sugar found naturally in fruits, has been found to produce lower amounts of the hormones that suppress hunger, thus being less able to signal “full-ness.” Eating too much sugar, processed foods and refined carbohydrates is known to increase circulating inflammatory mediators which can lead to both insulin and leptin resistance.

High Blood Sugar. While seemingly counterintuitive, when blood sugar is abnormally high, as in uncontrolled diabetes, glucose isn’t able to enter the cells to provide energy, either because of a lack of insulin (Type I) or insulin resistance (Type 2). This lack of cell energy paradoxically stimulates hunger, as the cells believe they are starving. The hunger caused by high blood sugar can lead to a never ending cycle of eating and weight gain.

Chronic Stress. I’m sure you have heard of “stress-eating,” and it’s really a thing. There is an emotional component in reaching for “comfort foods,” but there is a physiologic component as well. When under chronic stress, our bodies release cortisol, which has been shown to stimulate ghrelin, increasing hunger. And if the cortisol levels remain elevated for a long period, they can lead to leptin resistance.

Lack of Sleep. Getting enough sleep is required for proper brain and immune function, but it’s also important for appetite control. A recent study demonstrated that partial sleep deprivation can lead to changes in ghrelin and leptin levels that can result in increased hunger and appetite.

Too Little Protein. Protein suppresses ghrelin and causes a feeling of satiety, or fullness, that lasts longer than from any other type of food. Not including enough protein in your diet can cause persistent or frequent hunger.

Too Little Fiber. Dietary fiber intake has been shown to modulate ghrelin levels, and too little fiber can lead to increased hunger.

Too Much Alcohol.  Alcohol has been shown to inhibit leptin and other hormones that reduce appetite, leading to increased feelings of hunger with excess consumption.

How to WIN the Hunger Game

Now that we know about some things that can cause us to feel excess hunger, we can beat the system and win the game by making a few dietary and lifestyle changes.

  1. Lose Weight if you are Overweight. This is the single most important factor in long-term hunger reduction. You may ask, “How can I lose weight if I’m hungry all the time?” The answer to this question rests in choosing the right foods that will help break the hunger cycle, as well as adding more exercise into your daily routine. Losing weight will also decrease leptin resistance, which will help decrease hunger sensations.
    a. Minimize intake of sugar and processed food. Avoiding processed foods and decreasing sugar and carbohydrate intake will be helpful in decreasing both insulin resistance and leptin resistance and will help decrease inflammation throughout the body. It will also help lower your triglycerides. High triglyceride levels can prevent leptin transport to the brain, so the hunger switch remains “on.” Choosing only healthy fats found in seeds, nuts, avocados and line-caught cold-water fish, and choosing healthy carbohydrates such as those in vegetables and legumes, along with adding physical exercise can help lower circulating triglycerides.
    b. Eat good amounts of protein. While carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are all necessary components of a healthy diet, the blood sugar spikes seen with ingestion of sugars and some refined carbohydrates can be moderated with adequate intake of proteins. In both lean and obese men studied, a sustained suppression of ghrelin was observed after a high protein meal. Other studies have shown that higher protein intake leads to greater feelings of fullness and fewer thoughts of food throughout the day. Since very high protein diets can also cause “net acid excess,” we recommend staying in the moderate protein range of 50-60 g/day. Follow my Alkaline Food chart that lays out the foods that can be staples of your personal healthy eating plan.
    c. Increase physical activity. Coupled with a healthy diet, increased physical activity can decrease fat throughout the body and also significantly reduce plasma leptin concentrations and improve receptor sensitivity.
    d. Increase intake of soluble fiber. As mentioned above, soluble fiber (found in apples, citrus fruit, beans, peas, broccoli and other vegetables) helps modulate ghrelin levels. Fiber can also help improve gut health!
    e. Drink plenty of water. Water promotes heart, brain, and digestive system health and can help reduce appetite when consumed before a meal. Adequate hydration can also help reduce high blood sugar levels, which can help decrease feelings of hunger.
    f. Minimize alcohol consumption. With respect to weight loss, alcohol provides “empty calories” in that there is no nutritional benefit associated with the calories it provides. Since it also increases hunger through leptin inhibition, skipping the drink can help with weight loss in more than one way.
  1. Get More Sleep. Aim for eight hours of sleep each night. Create a sleep ritual such as taking a salt and soda bath that incorporates five minutes of abdominal breathing followed by 15 minutes of relaxation or active meditation. Keep your bedroom dark and quiet and make it a screen-free zone. Avoid caffeinated beverages after noon and stop consuming food and drink 2-3 hours before bedtime.
  2. Decrease Stress. Practicing deep breathing, active meditation, yoga, tai chi, or adding other exercise to your daily routine can help reduce cortisol levels and leptin resistance.
  3. Get Your Blood Sugar Checked. During this National Diabetes Awareness Month, make an appointment to see your doctor to get your Hemoglobin A1C tested. The HgbA1C test is a good measure of circulating glucose levels over the past 3 months. Taking the steps noted above under losing weight will have the added benefit of lowering blood sugar as well.

Eat. Live. Thrive.