Our bodies produce a whole host of hormones which play a role in our health and how we function on a daily basis. Ghrelin, known as the hunger hormone, controls – you guessed it-hunger, food intake and (combined with growth hormone), fat storage.
Ghrelin is stimulated by cells in our stomach and sends signals to a part of the brain telling our body it’s time to eat. Small amounts are also released by the pancreas and the small intestine. The more ghrelin in the bloodstream, the bigger our appetite is. After eating, we feel satiated and ghrelin levels are decreased and they don’t rise again until your body starts requiring more energy.
If you’re trying to lose weight, you might be wondering how you can keep your levels down but bear in mind that it does has a specific job to do in the body. If we weren’t ever hungry, would we still have joy from the food we eat? How would we know when we’re low on nourishment? How would we function at our best?
It’s when it stops working as it should that we can run into trouble. And, our diet and lifestyle choices have a significant impact on this. That doesn’t mean jumping to calorie restriction. Naturally, this will increase your ghrelin levels, potentially lead to overeating and storage of fat. Interestingly, research has indicated that overweight and obese individuals have a lower fasting rate of ghrelin. This suggests that over time, overeating can decrease sensitivity to the hormone, and lose this essential control mechanism.
It’s important to note that ghrelin may be equally as important for weight gain. And once again all comes back to balance. So, I’ve highlighted a few tips here, which will help keep this specific hormone in check and working as it should at both ends of the spectrum.
Eat a diet rich in fibre from fruit and vegetables, legumes and wholegrains.
Fibre slows down the release of glucose into our blood stream while also keeping our gut bacteria diverse and healthy. Foods high in fibre also tend to be higher in nutrient density, yet lower in calories meaning you get ‘more for your money’ when it comes to calorie intake.
Limit intake of high GL carbohydrates and processed foods high in sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Refined and processed foods are low in nutrients in addition to spiking your blood sugar for a short period, sending your hunger and energy levels on a rollercoaster. They trigger release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward. We start to associate that short lived high with reward as opposed to the feeling of being nourished and satiated.
Eat protein with every meal
Incorporating a portion of lean or vegetable protein into each meal (eggs, oily fish, organic chicken or turkey, grass fed meat, tofu, beans and pulses) will slow gastric emptying, keeping you fuller for longer. It will also blunt the insulin spike you get from eating a carbohydrate based meal, preventing the sugar cravings which inevitably follow that initial sugar high.
Reduce your stress
Studies in animals have shown that exposure to chronic stress increases circulating ghrelin and growth hormone levels (Massachusettes Institute of Technology, 2013). It also interacts with the brain’s reward pathways to increase food intake, creating a vicious cycle where we begin to see food as a comfort during times of stress and anxiety. Incorporate yoga, meditation or breathing into your daily routine, get out for a walk or run in nature, find something that works for you to allow you to live (and eat) more mindfully.
Sleep deprivation has been associated with an increase in ghrelin levels, appetite and hunger comparative to sleeping for longer periods. Aim for 7-9 hours per night, practice good sleep hygiene by limiting screen time, avoiding heavy meals and alcohol before bed, and try to stick to regular sleep and waking up times to regulate your circadian rhythm.
Research in recent years has indicated a link between High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), reduced ghrelin and increased leptin levels. Incorporate some high intensity exercise to your lifestyle each week – circuits, sprints, cycling. Get out and get a sweat on!
If you’re looking for support with weight loss or indeed weight gain, incorporating these diet and lifestyle changes would be a great place to start. It’s important to remember however, that ghrelin is only one of many interrelated factors, which could be impacting on your health and wellbeing. Working with a Nutritional Therapist would allow you to create a plan specific to your body’s needs and your personal health and fitness goals. For more information on what this involves, contact me on email@example.com or 07961 166582 to arrange a complimentary call with me, I would love to help.
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Ghrelin, a stress-induced hormone, primes the brain for PTSD." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 October 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131015191405.htm>.