Hungry, Hungry Hormones: Cravings and Fat Loss

Cravings have a number of sources that can be tied to little or poor quality sleep, stress, and emotional upset.  The single factor in common for all of those issues is your hormonal health.

While other factors like nutritional deficiencies and dehydration can also play a big role in cravings, it's often the hormonal factors that are left out of the equation.  You can be eating all the right things, working out, properly hydrating, and have a healthy digestive tract and still struggle with cravings on a daily basis that can negatively impact your overall health.

This is where an argument can be made that hormonal issues are often the underlying cause of many issues we experience.  From stubborn weight gain, headaches and foggy memory to thyroid issues and blood sugar regulation, hormones are sensitive to various types of stress and affect everything from our overall hunger to those nagging cravings.

To explain, let's start with covering the some of the main hormones related to this area.

FOUR HORMONES IMPACTING CRAVINGS AND FAT LOSS

Insulin

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that allows your body to use sugar (glucose) for energy.  When consuming any macronutrient whether it be fat, protein or carbohydrates,  the pancreas secretes insulin to move the glucose from the bloodstream into the cells to be used for energy.  This is particularly true of a diet that involves overconsumption of any food, and eating a very high number of carbohydrates has a particularly strong impact on insulin since those foods are higher in sugars.

With repeatedly high amounts of glucose in the blood, the cells stop responding to the insulin trying to move the glucose into the cell for energy.  The pancreas then has to work overtime to produce more insulin to try and make the cells accept the glucose to move it out of the blood.  This eventually causes insulin resistance.

Here's a quick note on how insulin and blood sugar affect us:

  • Blood sugar is high and insulin is low = tons of energy
  • Blood sugar is low and insulin is high = want to take a nap

This is why stabilizing and regulating blood sugar is so important.  When we spike our blood sugar with refined carbohydrates (sweets, pastries, pop, for example) it is usually followed by a crash that involves low energy and further cravings.  Furthermore, when insulin is high, the body cannot burn fat effectively.

Leptin

Leptin is secreted from fat cells and lets the brain know how much fat we have available to use for energy.  It tells the brain when we have had enough food and can stop eating, but these signals can become confused if under-eating or over-eating occurs on a regular basis.  This is called leptin resistance, similar to insulin resistance.  The leptin is still being produced, but the signalling is confused and may cause the body to hold onto existing fat and even gain fat because it thinks that there isn't enough.

Typically, the more fat we have, the more leptin we produce.  This should cause a drop in appetite and increased metabolism, but the leptin resistance prevents the correct signalling and you may actually become even hungrier.

Ghrelin

Ghrelin is made from the lining of the stomach when your stomach is empty to let you know that you're hungry.  Typically ghrelin is high before eating when you're hungry, and low after you eat.  If dieting and limiting the amount of food you consume, your hormones can shift to cause more hunger, which is what often leads to yo-yo dieting and having difficulty keeping weight off.

Learning the signals of true physical hunger versus emotional hunger can be helpful to learning to eat when your digestion will be optimal and aiding fat loss at the same time.  Another helpful practice is to eat to 80% fullness, meaning that you're satisfied and could eat a little more, but stopping before becoming completely full.

Physical Hunger vs. Emotional Hunger 1

Physical builds gradually; Emotional develops suddenly.
Physical strikes below the neck (i.e. growling stomach); & Emotional occurs above the neck (i.e. a taste for ice cream).
Physical occurs 3+ hours after a meal; & Emotional occurs at random times.
Physical can be temporarily offset by drinking water; & Emotional still persists after drinking a glass water.
Physical goes away when full; & Emotional still persists after a good deal has already been eaten.
Physical is satisfied with food; Emotional leads to guilt after eating food.
Physical can be suppressed with stress; Emotional is activated with stress.
Physical enhances taste; Emotional does not.

Cortisol

Cortisol is what we know as the stress hormone.  It's often made out to be a solely negative factor for the body when it's actually necessary to our health in small amounts.  Unfortunately in our modern world, it's very common to have an excess of cortisol in the body which is when we can experience difficulties.

Excess amounts of cortisol trigger a fight or flight response in the body which raises blood sugar levels available to the brain, while decreasing it in other areas not necessary to the immediate danger, such as digestion or reproduction.  Think about being chased by a tiger in ancestral times.  The body responds to that kind of stress by triggering an immediate reaction, including the release of cortisol.  You run from the tiger, and the cortisol (among other fight or flight responses such as adrenaline) has served its' purpose and you go back to hunting and gathering.

In today's modern world, our fight or flight response can be triggered for any number of reasons on a daily basis, and the big shift is that stress experienced today is often prolonged over extended periods.

The other main difference is that generally, we don't immediately run from danger as we used to from a physical threat to our lives.  Instead that stress (and cortisol) build up and become a constant in our daily lives, coursing through our bodies and wreaking havoc on our health, leading to issues like cravings, digestive distress, fatigue and low libido among a host of other significant health issues.

ACHIEVING HAPPY, HEALTHY HORMONES

Hormone health can be a tricky balance, but there are many steps we can take to keep our hormonal health balanced and thriving.

  • Stop yo-yo dieting

Not only is the cycle of over and under eating hard on our self esteem and emotional health, but it takes a toll on our hormones and metabolism.  The body will stop being as responsive to caloric deficits, and we then assume that we must need to restrict food even more and increase exercise.  It's a vicious cycle that can be incredibly damaging.

Instead, begin using moderation as a tool for guiding how to eat along with improving your digestive health.

  • Physical vs. emotional hunger

As shown in the chart above, learning the difference between the different types of hunger you are experiencing can create awareness that will prevent over- or under-eating.  Being mindful and paying attention to the biofeedback cues your body is giving you will keep your system regulated and make for happier hormones.

  • Consume protein, fats and complex carbohydrates

These types of foods are more satiating than refined carbohydrates and will prevent the crash of blood sugar following consumption as they are digested more slowly.  Complex carbs in particular are higher in fibre, which keeps us feeling more full for longer periods of time.  These types of foods are also friendlier to digestion and fat loss.

  • Eat slowly and chew thoroughly

Consuming food more slowly allows the body enough time to recognize that it is getting full.  If you're still hungry after a meal, wait about 20 minutes before having more food once you've determined that you're experiencing true hunger rather than emotional.  This gives the hormone ghrelin time to signal to the stomach that you've had enough to eat and do not require more to eat.

  • Sleep

Getting 8 hours of quality sleep helps to balance many of our hormones including leptin and ghrelin to better regulate our appetites.  This is why if you're running on little sleep, you're more likely to crave high fat or sugary foods.  Creating a bedtime routine and getting to bed a little earlier, even in small increments at a time, can make a big difference to cravings, fat loss, digestion and gives the liver a chance to properly detoxify while you're sleeping.

  • Leisure activities

Any type of leisure activity that you enjoy can have a calming, relaxing effect on your body, nervous system and hormones.  Walking, for example, lowers cortisol, as does gentle yoga or stretching, cuddling a pet or loved one, or watching a funny movie.  Any activity that rests and recharges you is helpful to keeping hormones healthy and happy.  Added bonus: going for a leisure walk can keep you from snacking ; )

 

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Related Reading:

Estrogen Dominance: How It's Affecting Your Body and What to Do About It

Hormonal Birth Control, Part I: Why I Stopped Taking the Pill After Eleven Years

Hormonal Birth Control, Part II: Healing From the Pill

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