Sometimes I want to pull my hair out at all the information going around in the media and on the internet; especially since a lot of that information is so incomplete.  

For example, “Lack of sleep causes weight gain.” or “Sleep more to lose weight.”    Ok, got it.  But WHY does sleep have such an effect on weight loss or gain?  

Doesn’t anybody ever question the reasons behind such bold statements?

Don’t get me wrong.  There actually is something to those statements but rarely does anyone talk about the reasons behind the headlines and I have a belief.  If you understand what is going on with your body it makes reaching your goals, whether it be healing from illness, shedding weight or otherwise getting into shape, much easier.  

We’ve talked about leptin and what happens when the body develops a resistance to leptin, which is the body’s master hormone that gauges the energy status of the body and is responsible for telling us when there is enough energy for bodily functions therefore we should stop eating.  

Ghrelin is, in many ways, the counterpart to leptin, in the respect that it is responsible for telling the body, essentially, when it is time to eat.

It is secreted by the fundus, in the upper part of the stomach (but also can be found in the islets of the pancreas, the duodenum, lungs, jejunum, sex organs, adrenals, kidneys and in the placenta of a pregnant woman. These ghrelin or epsilon cells,  stimulate hunger when the stomach is empty.  Ghrelin levels are highest before a meal and lowest directly after a meal.   It should be noted that although leptin is the counterpart and, to some degree, when leptin levels fall telling the body it needs more energy, ghrelin is stimulated, leptin does not control ghrelin except on the periphery however they are both part of a homeostatic loop that is meant to keep the body well nourished.  

A few fun facts about ghrelin before we go further:: 

  • Ghrelin is also called the growth hormone secratogogue (GHS) receptor.  This receptor was discovered in 1996.  
  •  Ghrelin enters the hippocampus of the brain from the blood, studies show,  and changes the connections between nerves and cells to enhance learning and memory. Long story short, learning and memory are better when ghrelin levels are higher which is when our stomachs are not full.  I am not saying send your kids to school hungry but don’t send them to school stuffed either!
  • Ghrelin also plays an important role in regulating reward perception (our ability to perform a task in order to achieve a “reward”, i.e food, sex, approbation, etc.) in the ventral tegmental area (a group of neurons located near the middle of the brain and plays a role in processing sexual desire and developing addictions) through its interaction with dopamine (a hormone and neurotransmitter) and acetylcholine (an organic compound that acts as a neurotransmitter).

What is the big deal about ghrelin?

Ghrelin is a big deal in the body.  I mean think about it for a moment.  It is secreted from the placenta in the early months of a fetus developing promoting lung growth in the baby.  That’s huge.

 But going back to that thing about incomplete information and in the name of completing at least one of those bits of information, it actually does help to get enough sleep when wanting to shed weight.  Well, let me back up.  Provided you don’t eat anything within three to four hours of going to bed and your stomach triggers ghrelin, sleep can help you shed weight.

How does it work?  Thanks to our circadian rhythms (physical, mental, and physical changes that follow a 24-hour cycle) ghrelin secreted from our stomach when it is empty at night, secretes growth hormone in the early part of the sleep cycle.  Growth hormone is secreted by the pituitary gland and plays a vital part, in adults, in helping regulate metabolic function, determines how we store fat (especially abdominal fat), determines the ratio of high density to low density lipids cholesterol levels and is imperative for normal brain function.  When you have a full stomach going to bed your stomach will not empty enough for ghrelin to be secreted and conversely, for the secretion of growth hormone.  That’s a bad thing!

Because ghrelin is aptly named “the hunger hormone” it gets a bad rap when it come to obesity.  In fact, there might be some truth to the fact that it can aid in overeating.  

Chronic dieters and those on severely limited caloric eating regimens have a tendency to have high amounts of ghrelin.  Yes, though we have said that it might be a good thing to have ghrelin circulating in the system for learning new things, often times these types of diets and dieters think of precious little else but food therefore too much ghrelin in the system can lead to binging and, generally, that means on high calorie, sugary carbohydrates and bad fats. 

Now, before you go telling me you are binging because “your ghrelin made you do it” let me stop you there and remember STRESS is the number one culprit of food cravings.  It can be any kind of stress, your husband coming in just as you got to sleep and asked you “are you sleeping?”, your son screaming for three hours because he wants to go “bye”, your boss contacting you again and again about a missed deadline, or even your body, full of inflammation, needing more energy to try to heal and locking you into cravings with trigger more inflammation and immune responses. Ghrelin triggers us to eat when we are hungry but, many times, food cravings have nothing to do with hunger.

Remember, both ghrelin and leptin are survival hormones!!  Unfortunately, in today’s culture of 24/7 markets, take-out and delivery, and vending machines, we really have stopped listening to their cues.

In a perfect world leptin and ghrelin would work in harmony, a little like a see-saw.  When one goes up the other goes down.  When we need more energy, leptin levels fall and ghrelin levels rise. When we supply the body with energy, ghrelin levels fall and leptin levels again rise.  

But to quote a popular song “oh, this aint no perfect world.” We’ve already discussed the mechanisms that environment that contributes to leptin resistance , the heavier you get the more leptin you have until the body stops listening to its cues but, unfortunately, dieting only makes the situation worse as is the case on deprivation (very low calorie) diets or fasting where leptin levels go down and ghrelin levels increase (trying to tell the body “FEED ME Seymour!”)  

How to get off the leptin/ghrelin rollercoaster and tame your ghrelin gremlin?

  1. Avoid Very-Low-Calorie Diets (1000 kcal and under). Eating more (and more nutrient dense) food allows you to avoid the diet hormone surges that trigger uncontrollable hunger and binges and the weight gain that usually follows. 
  2. Don’t Skip Meals. This is especially important if you are leptin resistant. Leptin levels shift with the timing of your meals. When you skip a meal you delay the secretion of leptin , but your stomach continues to secrete a dose of ghrelin about every 20 to 30 minutes. It makes you want to eat — sometimes the house. Ghrelin  also has the additional side effect of causing us to make poor food choices. Studies have shown that when ghrelin is elevated, we are more likely to choose high-fat and sweet foods. (This goes back to our paleolithic ancestors who, when hungry, often would look for quick, higher sugar sources of food) This can mean if you skip breakfast or other meals throughout the day and hunger is building up, you’re more apt to grab junk food rather than something healthier and more sustainable.
  3. Avoid Fructose. Ongoing studies show that fructose  prevents leptin and insulin from elevating to normal levels after a meal, while increasing ghrelin and triglycerides.This can lead to a dramatic increase in calorie consumption,[9] and may lead to the onset of other disease conditions. While high-fructose sweeteners in soft drinks and snack foods are the biggest concern, it’s also important to note that, if leptin resistant, large amounts of  fruit, and especially fruit juice consumption can lead to these shifts as well. Some healthcare providers suggest keeping fructose intake under 50 grams per day, however, if leptin sensitivity and weight is under control, ripe fruits and small amounts of fruit juices which are mixtures of fructose and glucose are fine.
  4. Eat Protein. Protein keeps hunger at bay despite the typical decrease in leptin and increase in ghrelin that occur with dieting. Research also suggests that protein improves leptin sensitivity.
  5. Increase Healthy Fats. Fats such as coconut oil which is high in caprylic and capric as well as lauric acid, ghee, grass-fed butter, lard from heritage and grass-fed cows and even free range duck fat can help satiety levels as well as being protective against the ingestion of polyunsaturated fats.
  6. Sleep 8 Hours a Night. Sleep affects both leptin and ghrelin levels. Also watch the late night grazing which prevents ghrelin from being secreted on time to release growth hormone (which helps stabilize metabolic function).  If ghrelin is not released at the proper time, you might feel like eating EVERYTHING the next day! Growth hormone affects thyroid function, leptin function and helps stabilize adrenals.  Lack of sleep throws everything out of balance and makes you sleep less which begins a vicious cycle of late night eating, not sleeping properly, lack of growth hormone secretion which causes more reasons to be sleepless, fat and sick.
  7. Focus on Gut Health. Science is starting to learn that our gut health can dramatically impact many areas of our health, including regulation of blood sugar and stability of weight. Tissue in the GI tract also vastly impacts appetite. A healthy intestinal tract can help control appetite; conversely, leptin and ghrelin imbalances have been observed in gut disorders like Chron’s Disease, IBS and colitis. Intestinal permeability leads to immune reactions and deficiency and can also cause or exacerbate gut dysbiosis which can and does lead to food cravings for sugar and junk foods.  Bone broth (added greens for extra minerals is a plus), gelatin and hydrolyzed collagen, and nutrient dense fruits and vegetables, with raw dairy (including Greek yoghurt) all help heal the gut and maintain intestinal permeability.

Ghrelin is often vilified for contributing to obesity, and, when other hormonal imbalances are not addressed, ghrelin does play a part, however, with a few lifestyle and dietary changes, the power of ghrelin can be harnessed to improve health and balance weight.