Ghrelin… I’m not sure about you, but for me it conjures up images from the 1980’s movie Gremlins. On the one hand you have this adorable creature named Gizmo, however if you expose him to bright light, get him wet or feed him after midnight these new creatures called gremlins start multiplying. They are violent and mischievous little monsters that create havoc in the local town.
That may be how some of you feel when you get hungry and your ghrelin levels get out of control. Dubbed the “hunger hormone”, ghrelin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. After eating a meal your stomach distends and the secretion of ghrelin decreases. At the same time leptin, the “satiety hormone” increases giving you a sensation of fullness and a signal is sent to your brain to stop eating.
Interestingly ghrelin has many other roles as well. Ghrelin regulates glucose homeostasis by inhibiting insulin secretion and regulating gluconeogenesis/glycogenolysis. Ghrelin signaling decreases thermogenesis to regulate energy expenditure. Ghrelin improves the survival prognosis of myocardial infarction by reducing sympathetic nerve activity. Ghrelin prevents muscle atrophy by inducing muscle differentiation and fusion. Ghrelin also regulates bone formation and metabolism by modulating proliferation and differentiation of osteoblasts.
These other functions of ghrelin make it an attractive option for pharmaceutical companies and ghrelin mimetics may be used to treat heart diseases, muscular dystrophy/sarcopenia and osteoporosis; GHS-R antagonists may be used to treat obesity and insulin resistance.
So how can you take control of your hunger hormone?
1.Get proper sleep. Most people require 7-9 hours of rest and studies have shown that ghrelin levels were elevated in those who get less than 7 hours per night. In a study from 2004, participants with short sleep, less than 7.7 hours, had reduced leptin and elevated ghrelin. These differences in leptin and ghrelin were thought to increase appetite, possibly explaining the increased BMI (body mass index) observed with short sleep duration.
2. Manage stress. Chronic stress leads to overeating, poor food choices, increased alcohol consumption and impaired sleep. Interestingly, elevations in ghrelin during stress may be our body’s way of trying to cope. In a study from 2016, exposure to stress was shown to alter the ghrelin levels and alteration in ghrelin levels significantly affects neuro-endocrinological parameters; metabolism-related physiology, behavior and mood. It was proposed that an increase in ghrelin levels during stress was an endogenous stress coping behavior and increased ghrelin levels may be required to prevent excessive anxiety. In preclinical and clinical studies, an elevation in ghrelin levels during depression has been correlated with their antidepressant activities.
Engaging in stress reducing activities like being outdoors, exercising, meditation, journaling, prayer, being creative and surrounding yourself with loving friends and family are all ways of decreasing stress and balancing ghrelin levels.
3. Exercise. High intensity exercise seems to have an improved affect on ghrelin and leptin than long steady state exercise, although to fully understand the full scope of the hormonal effects of exercise, more research is required. We do know that regular physical activity improves overall hormonal balance, weight and a sense of wellness.
4. Eat a whole foods diet and 3 meals per day. A whole food diet will include a proper balance of maronutrients and micronutrients. Ghrelin levels will start to increase 3-4 hours after eating. Eating 3 meals per day will keep ghrelin and leptin levels stable. During crash dieting or calorie restriction, ghrelin levels increase and poor food choices and cravings will increase.
Protein can slow gastric emptying and provides satiety. Consuming healthy fats can decrease ghrelin levels. High fiber foods stretch your stomach and balance your hunger hormones. Adding protein to your meals helps with satiety by improving leptin sensitivity. Add healthy fats to your meals as well. Foods that contain omega 3 like fatty fish, chia and flax seeds and nuts will boost leptin and keep ghrelin in check. Adding MCT oil to your morning beverage is another great way to keep your hunger hormones balanced.
Consuming processed, GMO laden, pesticide ,antibiotic and hormone treated foods will lead to many ailments and diseases. MSG, which is added to many processed foods, suppresses leptin. Fructose prevents leptin and insulin from elevating to normal levels and increases ghrelin and triglycerides. Keep fructose below 25 grams per day and avoid consumption of high fructose corn syrup. Antibiotics in our food supply, or taken regularly for frequent illness, increase ghrelin levels so look for antibiotic-free animal proteins and use antibiotics only when necessary. Additionally, consume foods that improve the balance of your gut bacteria or microbiome and/or take a broad-spectrum probiotic. Consume foods that are considered prebiotics like artichoke, garlic and onions and fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir, and sauerkraut. Avoid artificial sweeteners, which stimulate the pleasure center in the brain, however without the additional calories keep leptin levels low and ghrelin levels elevated.
5. Change your mindset. An interesting study showed that believing that you are consuming a satisfying meal can affect your hunger hormones. In a study where two groups were given the same milkshake, the group that had milkshakes labeled “indulgent” showed significant decrease in ghrelin levels, while the group that consumed the same milkshake labeled “low calorie” did not. Create a meal plan that is interesting, filled with color and variety, includes new spices to excite your taste buds and that includes the right balance of macronutrients to create optimal weight, energy and well-being.
There are many ways to enjoy your favorite recipes by switching out processed ingredients for healthier alternatives. And don’t forget to give your new creations fun and interesting names!