How to Reprogram Your Hunger Hormones and Drop a Size

reprogram hunger hormones

Everyone knows the “secret” to losing weight is to eat less and exercise more, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. But don’t worry, I’m about to clear things up for you, so you learn not only why you may be struggling to shed pounds, but the science behind what you can do to reprogram your hormones naturally and lose weight (yes, there will be some science, but I promise no math)!

Sure it’s true that skipping the cookies and going for a walk instead is a good idea, but if you are noticing your waistline isn’t where you want it to be (especially as you get older), you need to work with your biology, not against it. Your hormones just might be the missing piece of the puzzle.

Long story short: If your hormones are out of balance, even your best efforts will NOT ease your struggle to lose weight.

Happy ending to long story: If you understand how your hunger hormones work and how to reprogram them, you’ll break the plateau and pounds will come off.

Keeping your brain (and tummy) happy is a good thing

Firstly, let’s differentiate between appetite and hunger, because they aren’t quite the same thing. Appetite is more psychological, and influenced by our social setting and habits (ordering “the usual” at our favorite restaurant, eating a hotdog at a baseball game, over-eating when we’re stressed). Appetite is our desire to eat.

Hunger is controlled by our hormones and our physiology. Unlike appetite telling us we want to eat, hunger tells us we need to eat. And yes, both wanting and needing to eat are a 100% requirement (or else we’ll die!). The key, as I always say, is balance.

There are several hormones that keep our bodies functioning properly in balance, but understanding how the hunger hormones work can help us shift our focus away from constantly worrying about food, dieting, and our weight, and can actually help us move toward freedomFOOD FREEDOM! 

Meet your hunger hormones, Leptin & Ghrelin

see-saw hunger hormones

Two important hormones that regulate our hunger signals are leptin and ghrelin. One is secreted in our fat cells (leptin), one in our stomach (ghrelin). Both send signals to our brain. You can visualize the two on opposite ends of a see-saw, with the body trying to keep everything in perfect balance so neither of them outweighs the other.

The babysitter

Leptin is the hormone that tells the brain, “You’ve had enough, put down that donut”. Think of leptin as the belly’s babysitter. Under normal conditions leptin goes from the fat cells through the body, to send our brain the signal we’re full. Generally, you want more of it – with a key exception.

Because leptin originates in fat cells, overweight people do have more of it. This might seem like what we’d want, but too much of a good thing isn’t always good. In fact, it’s possible to become “leptin resistant” (too much leptin circulating around the body means it takes more and more of it for the brain to get the “you can stop eating now” signal). As a result, your brain thinks you’re still hungry and the vicious cycle of eating continues – and so does weight gain.

Experts believe that both chronic inflammation and excess consumption of sugar are also to blame for leptin resistance. Reducing your body fat can help to reset this leptin resistance.

Want to increase leptin naturally? Here’ s how:

  • Reduce inflammation in the body
    • eat fewer inflammatory foods (trans fats, high fructose corn syrup)
    • eat more anti-inflammatory foods (fish, nuts, healthy fats, leafy greens)
  • Get enough sleep
  • Avoid severe calorie restriction

The gut gremlin

brain in front of an empty plateGhrelin (the “gremlin” of our gut) is leptin’s partner in crime. It’s the hormone that sends your brain the instant message, saying, “Go grab more food!”. This hormone starts in the stomach, travels through the blood stream, and ends in the same place as leptin does, in the brain. Lowering ghrelin can reduce hunger and cravings, to naturally allow you to eat less. If you want to lose weight, you want less ghrelin.

What triggers ghrelin to be released? Meal timing has a lot to do with it. Ghrelin levels rise right around the time your body expects (or that we’ve taught our body to expect) your next meal. No wonder our tummy knows when it’s time for lunch!

This study found that having small amounts of food in the stomach (i.e. frequent snacking) seems to be a trigger for the ghrelin gremlins to come out. This has caused many experts to question the “eat several small meals a day” recommendation we hear so often, since each time we eat, more ghrelin gets made and all we want to do is eat some more!

Stressful situations also trigger immediate ghrelin release (it’s no wonder so many of us have the urge to snack when we’re stressed out). It’s not your lack of “willpower”, really. It’s ghrelin!

Ways to reduce ghrelin:

  • Eat meals full of voluminous foods (healthy fats, proteins, complex carbs) while avoiding inflammatory foods (especially added sugars) – so you won’t be so hungry and be tempted to snack all the time
  • Get adequate sleep
  • Reduce stress with relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, music, meditation, stretching/yoga, or prayer
  • Push back breakfast time and skip the afternoon snack
  • Exercise with high-intensity-interval-training (read about HIIT here) workouts 2-3 times per week
    • short, high intensity bursts of exercise, combined with slow, recovery phases repeated throughout one short 15–20 minute session
    • many possible options, such as going to the track and walking the curves and sprinting the straighter sections, or sprinting on a spin bike for 20 seconds, then going easy for 20 seconds, repeating for 10 to 20 minutes
    • everyone can determine what “high intensity” means for them, since we are all at different levels

Do you see the commonalities in ways you can start reprogramming your hormones yourself? I can already see your see-saw getting into balance! :)

If we could rewind the clock…

Here’s the part where you give yourself permission to forgive, and even appreciate your past. It’s not all your fault that you have gained weight over the years (OK, it might be some, but definitely not all).

Think about the way your grandparents lived. Life was simple and food was mostly unprocessed. There was probably not much of a need to “hack” your hunger hormones back then. Fast forward to today – the “microwave generation”. Everything is fast, convenient, and easy, and it hasn’t helped our waistlines.

There is an abundance of fast food, packaged foods, super sized servings, mixed messages about what foods we should eat and which food is the latest villain. Then there are the time-suckers that contribute to our lack of regular sleep cycles – like our social media newsfeeds and late night Netflix binges. To top it all off, we are inundated by food marketing, telling us, “You can’t just eat one!”. Is it any wonder our hunger hormones have gone wild?

It’s not all your fault

I’ll repeat what I said before: It’s not all your fault. But now that you know a little more about how your hormones affect your hunger and energy balance you can do something about it. You can start right now, reprogramming your hormones yourself! 

DON’T depend on your doctor to know all the latest research. You should do your own research. There are many studies, eleven of which I’ve linked to in this post alone, that will get you started.

DON’T depend on short-term or ‘magic bullet’ quick fixes. Instead, learn about and change lifestyle habits for long-term success.

DO follow the tips I’ve outlined (every one of them based on research) to start to shift your hormone production and really begin to hack the weight loss code.

Gimmie just the facts ma’am

That’s was a lot of science-y talk, I know. Let’s summarize, shall we?

  1. Leptin helps suppress the amount of food we take in by letting our brain know we’re satisfied.
  2. Ghrelin is released during the time leading up to our next meal – and excess ghrelin means we eat too much and too often.
  3. Both of these hunger hormones can be controlled naturally, with some minor changes to what we eat, how often, and by managing our sleep and stress.

AND…here are your 6 keys for your ‘reprogramming mission’ (should you choose to accept it):

  1. Reduce inflammation with the right foods 
  2. Exercise, including 2-3 HIIT workouts/week
  3. Get enough sleep
  4. Reduce stress 
  5. Push back breakfast
  6. Eliminate snacking

What’s your plan to reprogram YOUR hunger hormones?

Are you ready do begin to do your own “study” on yourself and get your hormones back under control? If the old advice isn’t working for you, why not look at all the current research and starting today, make a plan to start reprogramming YOUR hormones naturally – yourself.

You really CAN stop obsessing over calories and looking at the scale everyday in disappointment. You really CAN enjoy food freedom – but you need to stop letting your stalled hunger hormones hold you back!

You have the tools to change your hunger – without a need for willpower, guilt or shame.

Think about the answers to 3 questions. Then type the answers to into your notes app on your phone. Take the list around with you all day, and revisit your answers to keep yourself accountable. Then do it again the next day. And the next.

  • What time is bedtime tonight?
  • How will I make time to decompress and have some quiet time tomorrow?
  • What am I going to eat tomorrow and when?

Once you begin to reprogram your hunger hormones, many other aspects of your health will start to fall into place, and your battle with weight loss won’t be a constant concern. Instead, it will be a natural side effect of your lifestyle habits. You’ll finally feel better, look great, know you’re healthy, and be able to ROCK any outfit you choose!

Download, pin, or print your own hunger hormone guide here:

leptin and ghrelin hunger hormone guide

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Laurie Yogi
Your online wellness strategist, just trying to embrace 50(ish) & helping you do the same.