Do you struggle with losing weight even though you’re eating pretty healthy and you’re reasonably active? You’ve been told your thyroid function and blood sugar levels are normal but you still can’t lose the fat?
I’m sure you’ve heard the terms metabolism (the rate your body burns energy), insulin (the hormone that balances blood sugar) and hypothalamus (part of your brain). But chances are pretty good you may not have heard of leptin and leptin resistance.
Well you’re in luck because I’m here to tell you what they are and how they’re related to weight loss (or lack thereof).
Leptin regulates appetite and adiponectin, which adjusts how you burn fat. Leptin is made by bodyfat and secreted into the circulation system, where it then travels to the hypothalamus. Leptin tells the hypothalamus that we have enough fat so we can eat less or stop eating. This all sounds great but it does not always work that way.
Why? Because your brain isn’t listening. There is no drop in appetite, no boost in metabolism and the brain might think it’s starving because it thinks there’s not enough leptin which makes you hungry.
So begins the viscous circle:
- Eat more, gain fat
- Increased fat = increased leptin in cells
- Too much fat means proper leptin signaling is disrupted
- Brain thinks it’s starving so you eat more.
- You get fatter and hungrier.
- You eat more. Gain more fat.
- And so it goes ….
Leptin resistance is similar to insulin resistance since they share common signaling pathways. Both affect obese people but men have more internal belly fat, which increases insulin whereas women have increased leptin.
Leptin can’t get to the hypothalamus because the proteins that transport it across the blood brain barrier aren’t working or aren’t there since there is a buildup of leptin in the cerebral spinal build that bathes the brain. This condition is known as leptin resistance and is thought to be the main biological abnormality in human obesity.
This makes our brain change our physiology and behavior in order to regain the fat that the brain thinks we’re missing:
- It thinks that we must eat so that we don’t starve to death.
- It thinks we need to conserve energy, so it makes us feel lazier and makes us burn fewer calories at rest.
In this way eating more and exercising less is not the cause of weight gain, it is the consequence of leptin resistance, a hormonal defect.
The cycle of leptin resistence is the main reason so many people “yo-yo” diet… they lose a significant amount of weight, only to gain it back (and then some).
When people lose fat, leptin levels decrease significantly. The brain interprets this as a starvation signal, changing our biology and behavior to make us regain the lost fat. There are reasons for leptin resistance and ways you can overcome it permanently.
The main causes of leptin resistance are:
- Inflammation:Inflammatory signalling in the hypothalamus is likely an important cause of leptin resistance in humans.
- Free Fatty Acids:Having elevated free fatty acids in the bloodstream may increase fat metabolites in the brain and interfere with leptin signalling.
- Having high leptin:Having elevated levels of leptin in the first place seems to cause leptin resistance.
If you’ve somehow found yourself in the viscous cycle noted earlier, are you doomed to a life of obesity? I don’t believe for a minute that you are. I won’t promise you that it’ll be easy but there are several things you can do:
- Avoid processed food:Highly processed foods may compromise the integrity of the gut and drive inflammation. If it comes in a box, or obtained through a drive-thru, avoid it. Eat fresh, whole foods rather than convenience and restaurant food. Smoothies are a wonderful form of fast food and meal prep once or twice a week is a huge help. I highly recommend a good probiotic from a health food store to help balance your gut.
- Eat Soluble Fibre:Eating soluble fibre can help improve gut health and may protect against obesity. The best sources of soluble fibre are legumes (beans, lentils, peas), fruit, vegetables, oatmeal and flax seeds.
- Exercise:Regular, moderate physical activity may help to reverse leptin resistance. Walking is an excellent place to start. If your health isn’t the greatest, start off slowly and have someone accompany you. You’re not in a race and the weight won’t come off in a week. Start slowly and increase your time as you’re able.
- Sleep:Poor sleep has been implicated in problems with leptin. Turn screens off an hour before bed. Avoid caffeine. Don’t eat a full meal shortly before bed but a light snack might be helpful. Meditation, journaling, reading are all good options. If all else fails, talk to a holistic nutritionist (such as myself) about other ways to improve your sleep.
- Lower your triglycerides:Having high blood triglycerides can prevent the transport of leptin from the blood into the brain. The best way to lower triglycerides is to reduce carbohydrate intake. There are good carbs and not so good carbs. Reduce or eliminate anything white (bread, rice, pasta, potatoes) and to go one step further, eliminate all glutinous grains altogether.
- Eat Protein:Eating plenty of protein can cause automatic weight loss. There are many reasons for that; one of them may be an improvement in leptin sensitivity. Ideally you’ll opt for hormone free meat, free-range eggs and ethically raised animals. Beans and legumes are excellent sources of protein as are nuts and seeds. A convenient way of obtaining plenty of protein is through good quality protein shakes. They come in both whey and vegan formulas.
Unfortunately, there is no simple way to do this. Eating real food, maintaining a healthy gut, exercising and sleeping well are all important factors. These are all lifelong endeavours that require a major shift in mindset and lifestyle.
But all is not lost. There was a study that showed that those who lost more than 5% of their bodyweight, had bigger drops in insulin and leptin levels.
- They lost more weight
- Had lower leptin levels
- Had lower insulin levels
- Had higher ghrelin levels.
I’ll introduce you to the hormone ghrelin in an upcoming article. Ghrelin is the “hunger hormone” that says “let’s eat”. It works in conjunction with leptin which, when it’s functioning properly says “I’m full”. It’s a lovely dance that they engage in but you’ll have to tune in later to find out more 🙂
Wishing you an amazing week!
Sandy O’Shea, CNP