Ghrelin: the Hunger Hormone

Craving fatty, high-calorie foods? There’s a hormone for that. Ghrelin is produced by cells in the gastrointestinal tract when your stomach is empty, and its levels shrink when you’re full.

Leptin and GhrelinIn this respect it operates in the opposite way from Leptin, which we discussed in a recent article. Leptin increases when your body is satisfied, and decreases when it wants calories. Ghrelin increases when you’re not eating regularly. In fact, research suggests ghrelin may be the reason why you feel hungry.

Ghrelin became known after researchers looked at patients who had undergone gastric bypass surgery, which reduces the stomach by up to 95 percent. Patients not only lost weight, they lost their craving for food – in large part, researchers believe, because the source of ghrelin production had been dramatically reduced.

Research has shown that increases in the hormone make you more likely to crave not just food –  but fatty food. One study, by Dr. Tony Goldstone of the Imperial College of London, showed that subjects who had been deliberately injected with ghrelin found high-calorie foods much more appealing than low-calorie foods.

Ghrelin May Be Connected To Food Cravings

Ghrelin, Leptin and Insulin Influence Food IntakeSo the next time you find yourself craving donuts or fast food, that may be ghrelin working in your brain.

This doesn’t mean you are at its mercy, however. Studies show that the frontal cortex of the brain – the decision-making portion – can override the hormone’s effects. Ghrelin works by playing on the brain’s reward system.

You’re hungry, ghrelin spikes, you crave high-calorie foods, you eat high-calorie food, the hormone plunges, you feel better. But individuals who exercise “dietary restraint” can choose not to consume these foods.

Thanks for the Memories, Ghrelin Hormone

Research also ties the hormone to the hippocampus, the part of the brain that appears to govern memory and learning. Higher levels of the hormone appear to contribute to improvements in both memory and the ability to adapt to changes in our environment. So you may find yourself more alert and focused during periods when you haven’t eaten for some time.

Perhaps this is left over from our days as primitive hunter-gatherers, programming us to become more alert for sources of high-calorie foods when we’re starving.

Research Continues

Research into the effects of the hormone continues. Scientists hope to develop ghrelin-blocking drugs which will reduce cravings. This remains years in the future, however. A search online reveals so-called “natural ghrelin blockers,” but there is little research supporting the efficacy of these.

Controlling the Cravings

Research shows there are two proven ways to manage your food cravings. One is to have a large breakfast. This sets up your day by filling your stomach first thing in the morning, which reduces the amount of the hormone your body will produce.

The second is to eat before you’re actually ravenous. Don’t avoid food until you feel like starvation has set in. If you do, then you’ll find that high-carb or fatty foods have much more appeal. So eat when you’re hungry, but don’t leave it until you’re famished.

Managing the cravings takes time. Eating can become habitual, which is why it is easy to overeat. But restraint can become habitual too. Eating properly, and avoiding high-calorie, low-nutrient foods both contribute to building a desire for healthy foods, while reducing the need for the empty calories found in unhealthy foods.

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