It’s 2 AM, and for some reason, you’re wide awake and hungry. Or perhaps, you find yourself aching to feast, even though you’ve just had a snack. What triggers these feelings of hunger? And how can we control or overcome these triggers to obtain and maintain a healthy weight? Well, the answer lies in our hormones. Our bodies naturally secrete two hormones which tell the brain: I’m hungry! Or: I don’t need to eat. Unfortunately, things aren’t always that simple, and our genetics and lifestyles may cause an imbalance in the hormones we produce — that means that you might end up thinking you’re hungry, when your body already has all the energy it needs. So, what two hormones are we talking about? How do they interact? And how can we work to strike a balance between these two opposing hormones? Let’s examine those questions to better understand cravings, and how to better control consumption in order to improve our health.
Ghrelin: Triggering Hunger
First thing’s first, let’s talk about the hunger hormone, ghrelin. This hormone is released into the bloodstream from organs along the gastrointestinal tract when the conditions are right to eat. If you have an empty stomach, then ghrelin is likely flowing — in fact, most ghrelin is released by cells surrounding the stomach. From there, ghrelin makes its way to the hypothalamus, where receptors essentially tell the brain: It’s time to eat. Thus, we feel hungry. In addition, ghrelin prepares the body for consumption in a number of ways, from triggering stomach acid production to heightening taste sensations.
In short, our stomachs tell our brains that we’re hungry, via the hormone ghrelin. And once ghrelin is in the bloodstream, it can be difficult to ignore. After all, this hormone is a part of our survival instinct, and it has a powerful impact on the brain and noticeable effect throughout the body.
Leptin: Suppressing Hunger
Next up, we have leptin, the hunger suppression hormone. Leptin is released by fat cells throughout the body, which essentially tell the brain: I don’t need any more food. Leptin essentially counteracts ghrelin, and, like ghrelin, it triggers receptors in the hypothalamus. When there’s sufficient leptin in the bloodstream, the hypothalamus tells the brain: I’m satiated.
However, leptin may not tell the brain: I’m full. What’s the difference? Well, your stomach can sense when it’s full. You can feel the presence of food in your stomach, even without leptin doing its job. Instead, leptin communicates that you don’t need food at the moment, it doesn’t communicate that you just put a whole meal in your gut. Leptin says: I’m content with the energy I have. While your stomach can say: I’m full.
Since leptin tells the brain that you are satiated, a few problems can occur that can lead to overeating. First of all, you may have a receptor imbalance in your hypothalamus. Your hypothalamus may be less sensitive to leptin, and more sensitive to ghrelin, which means that you feel hungry more often, even when you’ve eaten recently. This is common in individuals who are overweight, and it’s akin to insulin resistance that can be observed in those who are diabetic.
Beyond that, you may not feel satiated for some time after eating, since the food you consume has to reach the fatty cells that release leptin before the message, I’m satiated, can reach the brain. This time gap can leave you eating more food than your body needs, and you can overeat to the point that your stomach is rather swollen — we all know that feeling of eating too much caused by that delayed sensation of feeling satiated.
Striking a Balance
So, how do we strike a balance between feeling full, being full, and feeling satiated? How do we ensure that leptin and ghrelin work together to inform us when it’s appropriate to eat? How can we control cravings while nourishing the body? Here are a few strategies that may help you to better control hunger, regulate your diet, and feel more content — all while obtaining and maintaining a healthy weight.
Adjust Your Sleep Schedule
You may be surprised to find out that sleeping more can actually decrease cravings, but the science is out there. Those who skip out on getting a good night’s rest may trigger higher levels of ghrelin while suppressing leptin production, and that means that you’ll feel hungry. Set aside sufficient time to sleep every night, and make sure that you achieve deep sleep to achieve a proper cycle for your body. With enough sleep, you’ll better balance your hunger and satiation hormones, and you’ll feel more content throughout the day. Take note, you still shouldn’t oversleep to the point that you’re skipping your morning exercise or other healthy routines. Sleep should simply be a healthy part of your daily routine and self-care.
Eating the right foods at the right time may help you to balance your leptin and ghrelin levels, ensuring that you feel satiated while controlling your weight. Instead of gorging on fatty, hollow snacks, be sure to eat healthy, nutritious foods that are full of fiber, which can help you feel full. It’s often best to incorporate good carbohydrates into your diet, like whole grains and beans, since these foods are full of energy, nutrients, and fiber, which help to balance your hormones. You may also consider a diet that is high in protein, which can mitigate the production of ghrelin so that you’re less hungry throughout the day. In general, avoid junk food and poor snack foods that don’t have the vitamins and nutrients that your body needs to thrive. Instead, opt for foods with great nutritional value, lasting energy, and fiber to help you feel full.
Recognize Hunger, Fullness, and Appetite
While it may be more difficult than it seems (especially when ghrelin is doing its job), you can work to recognize your hunger, fullness, and appetite to better understand what your body needs and what your body is communicating to your brain. Recognize that hunger can be triggered by an empty stomach (which causes ghrelin to release into the system). A healthy snack may be just the trick to suppress ghrelin production, especially if it’s not time for a full meal.
If you find that you often overeat, then your body may not be communicating that it is full fast enough. Strive to slow down as you eat. Be conscious of your portions, be sure to chew each bite, and recognize when you feel full. You don’t need to fill your stomach to the brim to feel satiated and full. If you do end up overeating, take note of how you feel. I often feel sluggish, and my stomach is upset when I’ve eaten too much. Next time you sit down to eat, aim to be conscious of the consequences of overeating — you can avoid a tummy-ache, a headache, and an unnecessary nap if you moderate your intake.
Take note that other things can trigger our appetite, beyond traditional hunger caused by ghrelin. We may gain an appetite for food even when we’re not hungry. For example, if you smell a bowl of buttered popcorn at the movie theaters, you may gain an appetite, even though you just ate a full meal. Or, on the other hand, your appetite may be suppressed if you’re sick, even though you haven’t eaten all day and your body craves energy. Be mindful that stress can trigger your appetite, even if you aren’t really hungry — that may be why you wake in the middle of the night for a 2 AM snack. Strive to recognize appetite and external triggers that are controlling your eating habits. It’s best to “listen” to your body to eat when you’re truly hungry. Don’t just eat when you’re bored.
Nutrition to Control Hunger and Improve Wellness
If you struggle to control your hunger, or you’d like to better control your energy levels and weight, consider consulting with a nutritionist. As a certified nutritionist, I work with women to determine their personal goals for their weight, health, and overall wellness, and we work together to reach those goals and maintain a healthy lifestyle. If you’d like to learn more about a personalized nutrition regimen for your health and wellness goals, I’d be ecstatic to talk with you — please reach out to me to learn more!