What is the hunger hormone? Hormone balance and food
You might have heard about the so called hunger hormone. Whilst it would be lovely to believe that one hormone holds the key to feeling hungry, or full, it’s not quite that straight-forward. The role that hormones play in our eating patterns, weight and body shape is a huge subject. So this month our article is a really simplified summary of how two main hormones can affect our feelings of hunger and satiety (fullness): ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and lectin (the appetite suppressor hormone).
What hormones affect hunger, appetite and satiation?
Essentially our body is working at all times to create balance. Part of this process is controlled or influenced by hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers produced in specific locations in the body, as part of our endocrine system, that take messages to receptor cells and organs around the body, which influences our behaviour and physiology.
There are many hormones that affect whether we feel hungry or full and they interact with each other constantly throughout the day. Two of the main hormones involved are ghrelin and lectin:
Ghrelin – the hunger hormone
Ghrelin is mainly produced in the lining of the stomach and is secreted when the stomach is empty. It follows a natural cycle – ghrelin rises before a meal and drops after it, and this cycle runs approximately every four hours. So, if you have not eaten for a number of hours, ghrelin will be produced. This hormone goes into your bloodstream and up to the hypothalmus (in the brain), which then sends a message to us that we are hungry so look for food and eat asap! So essentially this is the hormone that increases our appetite. The hormone also plays a role in body weight.
Lectin – the appetite suppressor hormone
Lectin is made by the fat cells in the body. Again, it is a hormone transported through the bloodstream to the hypothalmus, which tells us that there is enough fat in storage, so can stop eating (so should help to prevent overeating). Lectin also plays an important role in regulating our body energy balance. The level of lectin is affected by when we last ate and also by our sleep patterns. Researchers have started to report that our sensitivity to lectin can change and be affected by our weight. If all is working well, hormones are balanced, then in thin people who have not eaten, lectin levels will be low; the converse is in obese people one would expect high levels of lectin. Recent research has shown that some obese people develop leptin resistance. (If you are interested in this, you can read an article in Todays Dietician Magazine by following this external link).
So, production of ghrelin and lectin is completely normal. Our bodies need to tell us when it is time to eat and when we have had enough. However, production of (and sensitivity to) these hormones can be affected by what we eat, our daily patterns of activities and inactivity (including sleep), whether we are healthy or have an underlying disease and levels of stress, amongst other things.
Other major hormones that influence our desire to eat
In addition to ghrelin, there are many other hormones that influence our desire to eat. Researchers are identifying more hormones all the time and the relationship between each hormone is complicated. Two hormones I wanted to mention here are important, not just in relation to the hunger hormone, but also in relation to our health in general.
Dopamine – the reward hormone
You will have heard of dopamine – it is often linked to addictions like smoking. It is also the hormone that contributes to craving. This hormone is released when we eat food (it is also released at other times). Processed foods, some carbs and all sugars lead to a surge in dopamine, which feels good to our body. Once this surge wears off, we want to feel it again, so we eat more sugar, processed food etc, and so the pattern continues. Eventually our body starts to down-regulate itself, which means you will start to need higher amounts of sugar / processed food to get the same feeling.
Cortisol – the stress hormone
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands when the body senses stress. If the level of cortisol is very high it can cause the body to signal you need more food, so you can overeat.
Top food tips for hormone balance
Our top food tips to support your body and create hormone balance are:
- Eat regularly. Have a good breakfast soon after getting up and then plant to eat every four to six hours. Bring healthy snacks if you know it will be a long time between meals.
- Make meals look attractive – include different colours (this gives you a range of vitamins and minerals) – so that you want to eat it. There’s nothing worse than feeling hungry and bored with the food in front of you.
- Include good sources of carbohydrates, like wholegrains regularly in your diet. Read our article what are good carbohydrates to include in a plant-based diet?
- Have a good source of protein in every meal – if you are not sure of good sources of vegan protein then read our article here. Protein can help to suppress ghrelin. Lentils are great for this.
- Nutrient dense food can help you to feel satiated, like avocado, millet.
- High fibre foods like brown rice and most wholegrains, broccoli, pears, berries and carrots
- Include a source of omega 3 fatty acids in your diet – this helps maintain our dopamine receptors. Add chia seeds and/or flax seeds to your breakfast, snack on walnuts, or eat spinach and avocado.
- Eat foods that have good anti-inflammatory properties. Research indicates that inflammation in the body can affect our hormone balance. So eat things like avocado, greens (kale, spinach), nuts and berries. If you think you have a food allergy or intolerance, do get it checked out as both can affect your gut health. This in turn affects your hormone production and receptivity. (See how do you know if you have a food intolerance article for more information).
- Foods that contain antioxidants – berries, nuts, carrots, indeed most fruit and vegetables are great too.
In our article how to balance your hormones naturally through diet we list some great food items to include on a regular basis in your diet. This includes
- Avocado – read this month’s broccoli, rosemary and avocado dip recipe
- Brown rice
- Nuts and seeds, like chia seed, flax seed and walnuts
- Greens – spinach, kale and collards
Here are links to some of the recipes we have published over the years, to give you some ideas on what you can cook at home:
- Healthy source of carbohydrates with our brown rice salad (can also be served hot)
- High fibre and antioxidant boosting heavenly guacamole
- Bring on the protein with our broccoli, tofu and cashew nut stir fry
- Broccoli slaw with tangy mustard dressing
Foods to avoid
If you feel constantly hungry and rarely satiated, the top foods to avoid (or at least keep your intake to a minimum) include:
- High fat food like fast food, fatty meats, processed meats, cheese, desserts and cakes with high butter content
- Processed foods – if a food items it has a label on the side of a packet, you might want to consider reducing the use of these items.
- Items that have a high sugar content. Sugary foods affect our blood sugar levels – and our blood sugar levels can affect our adrenal hormones, which has a knock-on effect to our other hormones
- Caffeine – drinking caffeine increases cortisol, so you can feel more stressed just by drinking it. Keep coffee and tea intake to a minimum or swap to decaffeinated or natural caffeine-free alternatives.
- Alcohol (it contains lots of sugar as well as other things!)
Swap as much as you can to the first list – foods to eat and you should soon start to notice a change in your feeling of hunger.
Other actions to help balance the hunger hormone
There are other things you can do to help bring balance to the hunger hormone
- Get a good night’s sleep. Research indicates that sleep is an important part of this process. Creating a regular sleep pattern, to ensure you get sufficient good quality sleep on a regular basis can really help to maintain a stable weight. The average amount of sleep needed is 7 to 8 hours per night, but you need to find what works for you – some people need more, others are fine with less. If you have 2 hours less sleep that you need, ghrelin levels increase – i.e. you feel hungrier more often!
- Exercise regularly. Having a healthy muscle mass also affects hormone production – another good reason to take up exercise!
- Reduce or manage your stress – take up and practice regularly activities like yoga, meditation, walking, gardening, or any activity that you find peaceful and relaxing. This can help to switch on your parasympathetic nervous system (this is the system that helps us to relax), which helps to reduce cortisol levels. This in turn helps to balance all of our hormones.
Find balance in our detox and weightloss retreat
One of the popular retreats here at La Crisalida Retreats is our detox and weightloss retreat. We offer juicing and/or healthy plant-based food to support you as you cleanse, relax and find your balance. Our retreats run all year around. All activities are included, take your pick from rebounding, guided walks, yoga, workshops and more.
We hope this article helps you to create a healthy hormone balance for yourself.
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).