This is part four of a continuing series looking at weight loss. To read Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3
We used to think our fat cells were just a place to store extra calories. I would guess that the majority of people still think that fat, also called adipose tissue, is just a big blob of worthless stuff causing us a lot of grief. In 1994 scientists discovered that in fact our fat cells are very busy, working all the time, AND they even produce a special hormone. This hormone, called leptin, is one of the most powerful hormones we make!
One of the best layman’s explanations of leptin comes from Sean Croxton of Underground Wellness. His video, “Fat Loss for Smart People” is worth a look.
Leptin is like the CEO of hormones. Produced in our adipose tissue (fat), it has a direct influence on metabolism. It is essential for survival.
Leptin works together with two other important hormones, insulin and adrenaline. Leptin, insulin and adrenaline report to and are directed by the hypothalamus, an area in our brain. So we have our hypothalamus (in the brain) listening to messages from our leptin (in our fat), insulin (made in the pancreas) and adrenaline (made in the adrenal glands); and making critical decisions on our health status based on these messages. The hypothalamus revs our metabolism up, or slows it down depending on the messages it is receiving. A body in balance has good communication between all of these areas. This is one of the key ways we maintain a healthy weight – good communication!
The hypothalamus region of our brain is mostly interested in staying alive, really that’s all it cares about, staying alive at all costs. Like the engineer of a big train it says, “How much energy is being used? How long will this last? Do we have enough in reserve to keep this up? I need answers people!!”
Leptin sends out messages at regular intervals keeping the hypothalamus informed. “Everything’s good here. We have plenty of food coming in, we’re setting aside exactly what we need. No worries here, things are fine.” Leptin also sends messages to the pancreas and the adrenals letting them know what is needed.
The boss Hypothalamus stays calm when these messages come in on schedule. “Roger that! Metabolism will remain at optimum energy production. Appetite, you don’t need to be high. Pancreas, thyroid and adrenals you’re doing fine, keep up the good work. Good teamwork everyone!”
If we are ever in a famine we are forced to burn our fat stores because food is scarce. The fat stores get smaller and smaller and nothing is coming in to replace them. Leptin sends an emergency message, “Hey, stores are running out. We will soon be burning muscle tissue, there’s not enough food!”
The hypothalamus jumps to action. “Thyroid, slow things down! We’re burning up energy too fast! Appetite, I order you to find us more fuel STAT!” This way we are able to conserve energy through slower metabolism while becoming hungrier and hungrier and thus even more motivated to find food. This is what happens when our bodies encounter starvation or famine.
The trouble is our hypothalamus never looks in the mirror. Our hypothalamus does not care one bit what we look like. It only cares whether or not we are going to die from lack of food. Someone in a war-torn third world country who is truly suffering from a dangerous famine will have this scenario going on in his body. Someone else (like us) in a wealthy western country with plenty of grocery and convenience stores as well as extra pounds on our hips, may decide to go on Medifast 800 calorie/day diet and our bodies will have the exact same reaction as the person in the famine-plagued country. The moment we are no longer in starvation mode our body works as quickly as possible to return to the pre-famine state. If that pre-famine state was a healthy one that’s not a bad thing. But if that pre-famine state was already overweight this means we gain back all of the weight that was lost by starving ourselves on purpose. (self-induced famine) The more often we put ourselves through starvation mode the less our body will trust us for survival. Instead of gaining back only to the original amount we will now gain a little extra “just in case you do something stupid and try to starve us again!” says the hypothalamus.
So how does leptin, insulin, adrenaline and the hypothalamus let us get overweight in the first place?
It all goes back to that balance we talked about in the very first article of this series. Something in our lifestyle pushes us out of balance. When that happens the leptin tries to send messages to the hypothalamus but the lines of communication are down and the message doesn’t go through. This is called leptin resistance. The hypothalamus sends out the alarm, “Oh no! Starvation mode!” Metabolism slows down to conserve energy, appetite increases and fat stores get larger and larger. This gives us even more leptin-producing tissue which puts it out of balance with insulin. We have set the stage for serious health issues. These issues include erratic behavior and strong cravings, mental problems, bone loss, heart disease and cancer. We have also lost the ability to maintain a healthy body weight. This is all because leptin regulates the other hormones including thyroid, adrenal, pancreatic and the sex hormones.
The brain is not the only site that receives messages from leptin. There can be a breakdown in communication between leptin and all the other body receptor sites. We can burn out our livers, pancreas, adrenals and thyroid when our body tries to fight off what is perceived as starvation or famine. The older we get the more likely this is to happen. It happens even faster when we are overstressed.
How do we know if we are leptin resistant? According to the book Mastering Leptin by Byron and Mary Richards there are several signs that indicate leptin resistance:
15 or more pounds overweight, low energy, poor immune response, fatigue, not refreshed by exercise, anorexia, significantly overweight in spite of near-starvation levels of calories.
So how did we get out of balance in the first place? ……..to be continued!…………Part Five here.
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