7 Habits That Are Messing with Your Hunger Hormones

Article posted in: Lifestyle
plate and scale with utensils

Your body has a handful of hormones that can affect your appetite in many complicated ways. Some encourage you to eat, others tell you to stop eating. And many times, your lifestyle habits like how much you sleep, how much you eat, even just what you choose to eat for breakfast, can garble those messages, leading to weight gain.

Here are six lifestyle factors that can wreak havoc on your appetite hormones:

1. You don’t get enough sleep.
Even one bad night of sleep can raise levels of the hormone ghrelin, which tells you to eat, and lower levels of its partner, leptin, the appetite shutoff hormone. Chronic sleep problems make it worse. In classic studies at the University of Chicago, people who slept for four hours a night for two nights, then 10 hours a night for two nights reported being hungrier for sweet and salty things after the two four-hour nights of sleep. Their ghrelin levels were up by 28 percent and leptin levels down by 18 percent compared to the nights when they clocked in 10 hours of zzzs. Poor sleep can interfere with your weight loss efforts in another way: Low levels of leptin can also affect your metabolism so your body isn’t burning off calories efficiently, according to University of Chicago researchers.

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2. You’re eating too little.
When you’re dieting, it’s tempting to slash calories or skip meals because you want the pounds to drop off faster. But in this case, slow and steady wins the race. When you cut calories too much, your body produces another hormone called Neuropeptide Y (NPY). The main job of NPY is to delay feelings of fullness. This is something that worked well for us when we were hunter-gatherers needing to eat as much as possible when we found food, but not so much now that we can find food at a moment’s notice. NPY has another job—to tell your body to store calories as fat, where they’re available in case of a food shortage. This, we know, isn’t going to happen in 21st century America. While fasting and meal skipping may help you lose a few more pounds, you’re likely to be so hungry that you’ll just gain it all back, thanks to NPY.

3. Your diet is too carb-centric.
Researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine have found that what kind of food you eat can have a major effect on your appetite. Carbohydrates, for example, initially curb your desire to eat, but then hunger rages back and you’re more ravenous than before. Protein is the best appetite suppressant and fat is fairly neutral. Protein tamps down ghrelin and helps prevent spikes of insulin, the pancreatic hormone, which can help curb hunger. Avoid carb-only meals and start your day off right with breakfast protein, such as eggs, low-fat turkey bacon, cottage cheese or plain yogurt. If you’re having carbs, try to always have a protein with them.

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4. You’re eating too many high-calorie foods.
Studies done at Penn State University found that people who ate a diet that is low in energy density but high in volume (think big salads, bowls of vegetable soup, side veggies that dwarf higher calorie meat servings) felt fuller longer, in part because they had lower levels of ghrelin and higher levels of Peptide YY (PYY), an appetite suppressant hormone, the perfect combo.

5. You’re not huffing and puffing enough.
Aerobic exercise—the kind that boosts your heart rate and sends oxygen to your muscles—curbs the appetite hormone ghrelin better than weight lifting, says a study from researchers at Loughborough University in England. The study participants who worked out on a treadmill for 60 minutes had lower ghrelin levels, as did their counterparts who did strength training. But the aerobics group also had higher levels of the appetite- killing PYY. Both groups reported low hunger levels, but the aerobics group was less hungry than the weight lifters.

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6. You’re not controlling your stress.
Technically, cortisol isn’t an appetite hormone, but it can make you want to eat everything you see, particularly if it’s high in fat or sugar or, preferably, both. Cortisol is often called a “stress” hormone. It’s released by your adrenal gland when you feel like you’re in danger, whether that means you’re being held at gunpoint or just faced with a looming work deadline. Acute stress can be an appetite killer, but when it becomes chronic, it can lead to cravings for comfort foods that can help counteract stress. Yes, that’s emotional eating and, according to one survey by the American Psychological Association, almost 40 percent of Americans have done it at least once. Almost half of those emotional eaters admit they do it weekly or more. One 2007 British study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that people who produce high cortisol levels in response to ordinary daily hassles tend to reach for snacks to medicate themselves. There are plenty of ways to control stress. Meditation helps—even just taking a few deep breaths whenever you’re feeling it. But exercise can serve double duty, relieving stress as well as triggering a better balance of appetite hormones that help you stay away from the Twinkies.

7. You’re not having enough fun.
All work and no play means your brain’s pleasure center is not getting enough attention. Several hormones and the brain messenger chemical dopamine play a big role in encouraging you to feed what’s called “hedonic hunger,” a craving for pleasure and reward. Turning to what turns you on—sweet treats like chocolate or salty choices like pretzels and cheese puffs—will certainly help you feed your hedonic hunger. The problem is, numerous studies have found, the more you eat and the more weight you gain, the more you need to eat to tickle your brain’s pleasure circuitry. To avoid shorting out your weight loss efforts, look for nonedible ways to feel pleasure. Try engaging in regular exercise, doing something artistic, setting both short- and long-term goals—your choice—and achieving them, listening to or playing music, or having regular massages. All of those have been shown in scientific studies to remind your brain that, yes, we are having fun yet.