Hacking the Hunger Hormone

Appetite may sound like an all-powerful barely extant Greek goddess, but in reality, it garners many more followers and worshippers than she ever could.

The mysteries of when we get hungry, when we don’t, and what we get hungry for have answers as vast and varied as the questions asked.

Some hunger clocks run like autonomous machines, barely warranting a second thought. And some are so erratic that their host-bodies end up with eating disorders, weight gain, low energy, or unhealthy cravings. 

Prominent and curious scientists have come to study ghrelin, a particular hormone associated with hunger, to begin to form answers.

Ghrelin: a hormone mostly produced and secreted by the stomach, though small amounts are also released by the small intestine, pancreas, and brain. It has several jobs, but it mainly awakens appetite, triggers food consumption, and encourages fat storage.

Okay, so ghrelin makes you hungry.

Is it really as simple as that?

Here’s how it actually works…

Ghrelin’s Journey

When you feel hunger, it’s because ghrelin has reached your brain in a significant enough proportion to cause the brain to tell you to eat.

But ghrelin actually does more than that. It also has an effect on circadian rhythms, the way we taste food, how we seek rewards, and how we metabolize carbohydrates. It’s a pretty busy hormone.

In fact, ghrelin is also commonly held responsible for weight gain in dieters – when the body isn’t used to restricting food access, it produces more ghrelin to try to convince you to eat the way you were eating before, as a survival mechanism.

When your stomach is empty, or at least empty at a time when it isn’t used to being empty, your stomach makes ghrelin and sends it to the hypothalamus – that’s the part of the brain that deals with your hormones and appetite.

Once the hypothalamus receives enough ghrelin, a few things happen…

  • Your body hangs on to fat. This has an evolutionary purpose – if the body is hungry, and there isn’t any food around, it’ll slow down thermogenesis of brown fat (a type of fat that is awakened by cold). Your body wants to make sure that if you starve, it’s got energy reserves saved up for you.
  • The stomach prepares for food to reach it in a process called gastric motility – basically, it becomes stretchy!
  • You notice you have an appetite. Scientists have found that ghrelin levels are highest in the bloodstream just before you eat, but decrease for up to three hours after you eat.

It would seem that being able to control ghrelin could be a powerful tool in regulating appetite, what most people consider the hardest part about maintaining healthy eating habits.

How to Master It

There are a few ways to tame what may be an unruly or overactive production of ghrelin…

First and foremost, make sure that you’re eating your meals at around the same time every day. Remember, your circadian rhythm is involved, and if you’re not hungry at consistent times, you’ll need to train your body to return to hunger in the morning, afternoon, and early evening.

The more regular your meal times, the more controlled your body’s release of ghrelin will be. 

Next, sleeping unrestfully, not enough, or at varying times can disrupt your natural production of ghrelin and even increase it. Sleep can also increase your body’s production of a hormone called leptin, which can help you to eat smaller portions and less frequently!

When you’re trying to lose weight, it’s important to note that the more and faster you lose weight, the more your body tries to get it back by telling the brain to eat… with ghrelin. 

Slow and steady weight loss helps you to keep the weight off for longer periods of time, since your body isn’t panicking at the thought of how it will survive as you’re rapidly losing mass!

And remember, ghrelin is stimulated by an empty stomach – so don’t let your stomach get empty! Light snacking on healthy foods with low caloric density (high water content) can help you to stay feeling full without needing heavy, high-calorie meals.

Our language around weight loss, dieting, and hunger can be very toxic.

It’s vital that we acknowledge there is no morality inherent in being over, under, or average weight. We are just a mass of electrified signals trying to survive – when your body tells you it’s hungry, it only wants what’s best for you!

You can help your hormones and yourself by training your body to release hunger hormones only when necessary.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.