Leptin is at the top of the hormonal hierarchy. Leptin & weight loss are very, very closely linked. Leptin might as well lumped in with insulin (in terms of its paramount importance) because, like insulin, its influence on fat loss is overwhelming. Here’s the thing about leptin: it’s JOB is to keep you from storing too much fat. Unfortunately, when it’s signaling ability gets screwed up, it can make it very difficult for you to release and burn fat.
Leptin is released by our fat cells. Consider it the “hall monitor” of fat accumulation. When you start accumulating excess body fat in your adipose tissue, your fat cells release leptin to signal the brain that plenty of fuel is available. This signal then kicks off a cascade of events to decrease your hunger and increase your metabolism (by stimulating your thyroid and adrenals).
On the flip side, when there aren’t an excess of fat cells secreting leptin, the low leptin levels communicate to the brain that there isn’t enough energy stored and so your appetite is stimulated and your metabolic rate is slowed down to help conserve energy.
Sounds like a pretty perfect system that should keep anyone from gaining too much weight, right? Unfortunately, just like what happens with insulin, we fuel our bodies so poorly that leptin’s ability to signal goes very wrong. Just like we have the carbohydrate cycle, there is a similar cycle I’ve put together to show how chronically high carbohydrate diets and high insulin levels impair the proper function of leptin in a big way.
Let’s look at what happens here – and remember – this is what happens over time, leading to excess weight gain, insulin resistance and ultimately leptin resistance, making it hard for overweight and obese people to break the cycle and successfully lose weight.
So you’ll recall that when we routinely eat high carbohydrate diets, especially processed, cheap carbohydrates that send our blood sugar through the roof, our body becomes far less sensitive to the presence of insulin (check out this insulin overview I posted a couple months ago). This is what we call insulin resistance and it causes our body to store more fat. More fat means that more leptin is going to be released (because leptin is released by our fat cells). Well, as you continuously pile on more fat cells, leptin secretion continues to rise. The same thing happens that we saw with insulin. Leptin is always around and your body tunes out the signals it is sending out. Leptin resistance and insulin resistance go hand in hand.
When you are leptin resistant to any degree, your body won’t receive the satiety signals it is supposed to. You can eat in excess without feeling full. Your hunger mechanisms are rarely turned off. Your metabolic rate slows because you aren’t receiving the messages that ample fuel is available (in your fat stores) so your adrenal and thyroid function slows. So you eat more, you are highly likely to store the food you do eat as excess body fat, and you rarely feel satisfied.
There is good news though. As with insulin, we have a tremendous amount of control over the action of leptin through the food we eat and the lifestyle habits we adopt. Because leptin is so significantly impacted by insulin, one of the most important things you can do to encourage healthy leptin signaling is to control blood sugar. How do we do that?
- Eliminate processed foods
- Reduce or eliminate wheat and grains
- Focus on whole foods such as vegetables, fish, beef, poultry, nuts, seeds and some fruits
- Eat protein and healthy fat at every meal
- Avoid carbohydrate intake in the morning
- When you are ready, incorporate high intensity interval workouts 2-3 times each week.
- Keep your sugar intake low – even natural sugars like honey
These metabolic hormones are all closely intertwined. We’ve talked about how insulin and leptin go hand in hand but you also see that leptin function influences your thyroid hormones and your adrenals. You cannot address one without impacting the other. If you do damage to one, it will impair the others. Remember that while calories do matter, you can’t make lasting progress without working towards balancing these critical metabolic hormones.
Oh boy am I excited to write about this topic. I’m not sure why – it’s not something that has been a lifelong passion for me or anything – but when I started to learn more about it and realized how much of what I thought I knew was wrong, I knew I had to share it with you. I want to talk to you about cholesterol. That word has an unfairly negative connotation. It blows my mind that you can go to reputable sites from health institutions and the government and read so much about cholesterol that just is flat out wrong.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is so critical to human health that every single cell within our bodies is equipped to produce it on its own. Our liver is designed to recycle it so we can get as much use out of it as possible. Cholesterol is used to make vitamin D, to make hormones, and to make neurotransmitters (such as serotonin, a primary regulator of mood). Cholesterol is required for the formation of synapses in your brain – allowing you to think, analyze and store information.
It’s no surprise that human breast milk is naturally high in cholesterol and even contains a special enzyme to make sure that infants absorb as much of it as possible.
Nora Gedgaudas, author of “Primal Body, Primal Mind” refers to cholesterol as the human body’s version of duct tape. I love that and think its spot on. Cholesterol is deployed in response to chronic stress, poor dietary choices, thyroid issues, injury or inflammation. Because of that, it’s often found “at the scene of the crime” in the case of arterial damage.
You see, when there is damage within our bodies, new cells are generated to help repair the damage. Cholesterol is a component of those new cells. In additional to that, cholesterol – that duct tape of the human body – is carried to the scene of the crime via its carrier, LDL, to help patch up the damage. Unfortunately, because of our generally poor dietary choices and chronic stress, we never stop initiating this damage. Chronically high carbohydrate consumption keeps our inflammatory response in overdrive. Chronic stress causes internal damage and our body never gets a break. But cholesterol keeps doing its job – getting deployed out to the scene of the crime to patch things up. Well of course, if you keep slapping on additional layers of duct tape it will pile up and yes, you guessed it, you start to see “clogged arteries”.
Since cholesterol is there, it gets the blame. How about we look at what’s causing the damage!? Cholesterol is a healing substance – why is it chronically needed for healing? Where’s the damage coming from and how do we make THAT stop? It’s like saying that since police are at the scene of every crime we need to focus on reducing the number of police so that there is less crime. Um, yeah, go ahead and try that.
Now, I want to make one more point about cholesterol from food sources. Yes, your body is capable of producing cholesterol on its own. However, it’s a very complex and inefficient process. When you consume cholesterol from food sources, your body is able to down regulate cholesterol production. There is a natural system of checks and balances in place because we were designed to consume cholesterol rich foods like eggs and animal proteins. However, when you dramatically cut cholesterol and saturated fats from your diet, your body sends its cholesterol production into overdrive because it can’t possible survive without ample cholesterol.
If you want to be healthy, if you want your body to function optimally, if you want your immune system to be strong, here’s my advice: eliminate the cause of the damage within your body. Cut out processed foods and wheat products. Focus on whole foods, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and high quality meat, poultry and seafood. Don’t think you’re doing yourself any favors by cutting your cholesterol intake or limiting your fat intake. The real culprit here is inflammation and the primary drivers of inflammation are poor food choices and chronic stress.
I never gave insulin much thought. I wasn’t diabetic; my blood sugar levels were within the normal range so I never imagined that I might have a problem with insulin. I think most of us probably think the same way – insulin is really only something you need to worry about if you’re diabetic. Here’s the truth: if you want to burn fat and get healthy, you need to understand and control insulin. If you’re carrying extra weight and having a hard time getting it off, you MUST pay attention to insulin. It’s not optional. Fortunately, it’s not hard to do if you make the right choices at mealtime.
Insulin became a problem for me (without me knowing it) because I spent years in the carbohydrate cycle. Maybe you recognize it? I’d wake up in the morning and have a bowl of cereal and some juice. Having not eaten since dinner the night before, my body would react to the rapid influx of carbohydrates in that meal, sending my blood sugar through the roof and giving me a burst of needed energy. Insulin arrives in response to my elevated blood sugar, as it’s job is to clear the sugar from the blood and take it to it’s storage place. As fast as my blood sugar rose, it plummets as there was nothing in my meal to keep it steady (like fat or protein). That energy I experienced? It’s gone. Not only that, low blood sugar tells the body that we need more fuel. That triggers hunger as well as cravings for carbohydrates, as your body knows that’s the fasted way to get that blood sugar back up. So now, only an hour or two after eating, I’m hungry again, I’m tired, and I’m craving more carbohydrates. That low blood sugar has also trigged a stress response from my body so now there’s this uneasy sense of urgency – “I gotta have sugar NOW!”. So, I’m human. I’d go get a sugary granola bar or snack out of a box of crackers. Annnnnnd we’re right back in the damn cycle! As if being hungry, tired, moody and craving sweets weren’t bad enough, we’re storing fat all the while! If you feel hungry shortly after eating, if you struggle with energy swings throughout the day and regularly crave carbohydrates, you might be stuck in the carb cycle, too!
Our body’s capacity to store glucose/sugar is limited to about 400 grams (not each day – in total). After this low threshold is met, excess glucose not needed for immediate energy is converted to triglycerides (fat) and sent to be stored or continues to circulate in the blood. Your high insulin levels also signal your cells to hold onto the fat and not release it for energy.
You are either in fat-storing mode or in fat-burning mode. You’re always in one or the other and you cannot be in both. The determining factor? Insulin. Carbohydrates control insulin and insulin controls fat storage. Your dietary choices determine whether or not you’re allowing insulin to work for you. You’re either eating to trigger fat storage, accelerated aging and inflammation or you’re eating to allow insulin to help you burn through your fat stores.
Here’s a quick run down of how high blood sugar and excess insulin are impacting your health.
- Chronic high insulin levels cause your cells become resistant to it. It’s always around, so they stop responding. You know how after listening to loud music for a while it doesn’t seem so loud? The same thing is happening to your cells. Insulin is always around sending these loud signals and your body just gets used to it and begins to ignore it. When your cells stop responding to insulin, not only does your blood sugar remain high, but your body perceives that it needs more insulin and keeps producing more and more, creating a cycle of increased fat storage, impaired fat burning and excess insulin production.
- When insulin resistance prevents glucose from getting into your cells, your cells think there isn’t enough glucose in your body and so they initiate a process called gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogensis is the process of generating more glucose and dumping it into the blood stream for energy. Of course this energy isn’t needed and likely gets stored as fat.
- Your blood sugar stays elevated for longer than normal since insulin can’t efficiently clear it – this leads to the formation of Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs. This process accelerates aging (they’re appropriately named, huh?) by triggering inflammation, neuropathy, fine lines and wrinkles and much more.
- Chronically elevated blood sugar is bad news, but so is the chronically elevated insulin that comes along with it! This can lead to systemic inflammation, heart disease and impaired blood flow.
- Your pancreas will eventually get tired of over-producing insulin. When this happens, you may become “insulin dependent” – requiring injections of insulin to help control blood sugar.
- Excess insulin wreaks havoc on your hormones. It can decrease your body’s production of growth hormone, which is essential for energy, repair, metabolism, immunity, libido and much more.
- Insulin resistance decreases certain thyroid hormones slowing your metabolism while increasing fat storage and decreasing your energy levels.
- Elevated insulin decreases sex hormone synthesis, which negatively impacts your menstrual cycle, fertility, mood, sex drive and more.
- Chronically elevated insulin encourages fat storage. The more fat you have, the more of the hormone leptin you produce. Just like you can become insulin resistant, you are likely to become leptin resistant. Leptin is responsible for signaling the brain that you’ve had enough to eat. When you’re leptin resistant, your brain has a hard time receiving those signals and don’t experience that “I’m full” feeling.
- Elevated insulin prevents glucagon from doing it’s job. Glucagon is a hormone that is required for fat to be allowed to leave fat cells and travel to be burned as energy. Glucagon will not operate in the presence of elevated insulin.
Scary stuff, huh? The reality is that this is what’s happening to your body when you eat a high carbohydrate diet rich in processed foods or you don’t move your body regularly. It’s compounded if you’re eating poorly AND not exercising.
The GREAT news here is that most of us have the power to control our blood sugar, moderate our insulin release, make our bodies highly sensitive to insulin and become a fat-burning machine!
When your body is highly sensitive to insulin, it signals your genes to create more receptor sites for insulin making you even MORE sensitive to insulin! When you exercise regularly, you repeatedly deplete the glucose stored there, allowing your next meal to refill those stores instead of being stored as fat. Your body becomes highly efficient at utilizing nutrients and drawing on fat stores for additional energy needs.
So, the take away? Your diet and lifestyle choices tell your body to get fat and stay fat, or get lean and stay lean. Whatever choice you make, your body is going to compound it. So where to start?
- Eat to control your blood sugar. This means avoiding processed foods and grains. Build your meals around healthy fats, protein and vegetables.
- Aim to get at least 3 high intensity workouts in each week. This will work to deplete your glycogen stores and teach your body how to be energy efficient
Take it one meal, one day at a time. You’ll feel the difference. We cannot deny the link between hormones and fat loss. If you want to achieve fat loss, you MUST eat to optimize your hormones.
Want more specifics on how to eat the right carbs at the right time and lose fat almost effortlessly? Check out this training I did last week!