Many interacting hormones contribute to our appetite and hunger. Various factors influence these hormones and our response to them.
Leptin supplements have become popular in recent years.
Leptin is a peptide hormone that is produced by our fat cells and that plays a role in regulating our body weight.
It is also called the “saturation hormone.” Leptin is said to reduce appetite and help with weight loss.
What is the role of leptin in obesity? And how can you increase leptin sensitivity? You will learn that in this article.
You also learn the following points:
- What leptin is and where the hormone is made
- Whether leptin makes you fat
- The difference between leptin and ghrelin (and what they have in common)
- Whether leptin supplements are useful
- 5 tips to increase your leptin levels naturally
- And much and much more ..
What is leptin?
The name leptin is derived from the Greek word ‘leptos’ which means slim.
Leptin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the fat cells in the human body and is excreted in the bloodstream, where it travels to the hypothalamus (the brain area that determines when and how much you eat) ( source ).
Leptin tells the hypothalamus that we have stored enough fat so that we can eat less or stop eating.
High levels of leptin tell your brain that you have stored enough fat, while low levels tell your brain that fat stores are low and that you should eat ( source ).
Leptin is also called the saturation hormone. The main function of leptin is therefore to signal your brain that you no longer have to eat and can burn calories at a normal pace ( source ). The more body fat they contain, the more leptin they produce ( source ).
In general: the more body fat you have, the more leptin your body produces. This means you eat less food.
Conversely, the less fat you have, the less leptin in your body and the more hungry you will be. In short, for weight loss, the more leptin the better.
Leptin was first discovered by scientists in 1994, after years of research on hormones that influence our body weight and what we eat every day (calorie intake).
The discovery came from a mouse study. The scientists noted that one genetically modified mouse species ate a lot and was obese. When researchers administered the hormone leptin to this mouse group, the mice lost weight.
When that became known, science was in turmoil. Anyone researching fat-burning wanted to know if leptin was actually the holy grail against obesity.
But the effect of leptin turned out to be more complicated than expected.
It appeared that the injections of leptin only worked for mice (and humans) who had a genetic deficiency of leptin. This was found to be the case in only about 5 to 10% of overweight people. For the other 90-95%, leptin did relatively little ( source )
What is the role of leptin in obesity?
You might think that obese people would somehow magically stop eating or start losing weight if their leptin levels are so high.
After all, people who are overweight have a lot of body fat. Because fat cells produce leptin in proportion to their size, people who are overweight also have high levels of leptin. Their brains should actually indicate that they have stored enough energy.
Then why doesn’t this happen?
- Unfortunately, you can become leptin resistant ( source ). Leptin resistance can cause hunger and reduce the number of calories that you burn.
Leptin resistance is now assumed to be one of the most important biological contributions to overweight ( source ).
In that case, you can have a lot of body fat, which means that you produce a lot of leptin. The problem is that it no longer works. The brain no longer listens.
You then have no lack of appetite and no increased metabolism. Your brain may even think that you are still hungry because the high leptin level is not signalled.
In that case, you end up in a vicious circle:
- You eat more food, which increases your fat percentage.
- More body fat means that more leptin is produced in the fat cells.
- Too much body fat can cause the signalling of leptin to be disrupted.
- Your brain still thinks you’re hungry, so you want to eat more.
- You become fatter and more hungry.
- And so on…
Eating more and exercising less is therefore not the underlying cause of weight gain, but rather a possible consequence of leptin resistance ( source ).
You can compare Leptin resistance with insulin resistance. In the case of insulin resistance, a lot of insulin is produced (as a result of a diet rich in added sugars and poor carbohydrates), but the body has stopped detecting a high insulin level.
What makes this interesting is that both leptin resistance and insulin resistance occur together in people who are (heavily) overweight, although obese men with a lot of visceral fat (abdominal fat) have higher insulin levels and women with a lot of fat under their skin have higher leptin levels ( source ).
Does leptin make you fat?
Lowering leptin levels can make it harder to lose weight even if you still eat less.
That’s because it causes your metabolism to work slower, so you need fewer calories to maintain the same weight.
When your leptin levels drop, it leads to an increased appetite and a reduced motivation to exercise. Your brain thinks that you are starving and do everything to regain your lost body fat.
This may be a reason why so many people regain their original weight after a strict diet.
Tips for increasing your leptin sensitivity
How can you increase your leptin level? This is possible with the following tips that help regulate the production of leptin!
Several studies show that the tips below can help regulate the level of leptin. This allows you to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight more easily.
That means that you switch to a healthy diet plan, sleep enough and ensure that the daily amount of stress decreases.
Keep in mind that leptin is not the only hormone that controls your body weight. Other factors also play an important role, such as: health, genes, age, gender, activity level and intestinal health.
So let’s start with the most important tips to help increase your leptin level:
Tip # 1: Follow a leptin diet
Is there a diet that contributes to a high leptin level? Hell yes!
Foods that are very satiating and make you feel full can be considered a good source to improve your leptin sensitivity.
Which foods should you not eat if you want to balance your leptin hormone?
Foods rich in refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, artificial flavors and added sugars! Studies show that processed foods such as candy, cake, pizza, sweetened drinks, chips, etc. can confuse your hunger and satiety hormones ( source ).
Fast sugars also cause large spikes and deep troughs in the blood sugar level. We also call this the blood sugar roller coaster. These fluctuations can cause your appetite to be greatly increased and to start eating again ( source ).
This is why I constantly hammer on eating natural and unprocessed foods. They are incredibly important for regulating your appetite!
Let’s see which foods can help you get a fuller and satisfied feeling after eating (and between meals).
Food with a high fiber content
Foods with a low energy density, such as fresh and cooked vegetables, contain a lot of volume, water and dietary fiber.
This is important to know because they are high in nutrients and have the lowest amount of calories.
Food sources such as:
- Fresh fruit
- Whole grains ( quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat)
They are all high in fibre and help to keep your hunger feelings under control and prevent overeating.
Eating protein-rich foods is one of the best ways to improve your leptin sensitivity. Food with high protein content helps keep hunger under control and maintain muscle mass. Increasing your daily protein intake also reduces your appetite and helps keep your metabolism going.
With protein-rich foods you can think of:
- Fatty fish
- Yogurt/cottage cheese
- Grass-fed beef
- Chicken breast
Although fats contain more calories than proteins and carbohydrates , they are necessary for the absorption of nutrients, including fat-soluble vitamins. Healthy fats give good taste to the cooked meal and help control hunger hormones.
A low-fat meal will probably taste less good. What you often see is that a lot of sugars are added to it, to compensate for the lack of fats. Not really healthy!
Therefore, try to add a little healthy fats to every meal, such as coconut oil , olive oil , avocados , nuts , fish, seeds or fat that naturally occurs in animal products such as dairy, beef or eggs.
Tip # 2: Start with intermittent fasting
Different forms of intermittent fasting are good for improving your leptin sensitivity and burning body fat. With intermittent fasting, or periodic fasting, you do not eat during part of the day (and night).
Researchers believe that periodic fasting can help to control local inflammation in the hypothalamus (the brain region that regulates our body’s energy needs), contributing to a healthy energy balance and protection against weight gain ( source ).
A study found that intermittent fasting in combination with strength training improved biological (health-related) markers in the predominantly healthy male participants, reduced the fat percentage and retained muscle mass.
After 8 weeks on the 8-hour diet ( 8 hours of eating and 16 hours of fasting ), the participants experienced a reduction in their fat percentage, while the fat-free mass was unchanged.
The leptin level decreased significantly in the men who did fasting, but there was no negative effect on basal metabolic rate (metabolic rate at rest). Given that a decrease in leptin level is usually thought to lower a person’s metabolism, this is an interesting finding ( source ).
Tip # 3: Limit the amount of stress on a day
Are you often stressed or exhausted by a high workload or relationship problems? Chances are that these stress symptoms cause a hormonal imbalance.
Even if you follow a healthy diet, there is still a chance of overeating and weight gain if you are very stressed every day. Whatever the cause, if this stress persists, your adrenal glands may become exhausted. Your adrenal glands quickly pump out adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
If you have too much stress in your life and are constantly pushing yourself too hard, you can get health problems, even if you do everything you can to keep your hormones balanced through a healthy diet.
Cortisol contributes to the accumulation of dangerous belly fat and aggravates the craving for unhealthy food.
Because digestion is also broken down during the stress response, chronic stress can contribute to a variety of digestive disorders. Cramps, bloated stomach , constipation and diarrhea are common symptoms of chronic stress.
Depression is a common response to chronic stress. All these things can lower your quality of life and adversely affect your (social) relationships with other people.
Tip # 4: Do physical training
Did you know that strength training, fitness, or another sport where you build lean muscle mass …
… is one of the best ways to improve your metabolism and increase leptin sensitivity?
The more you do physical activity, the more your metabolism and the ability to regulate leptin increases. By lifting weights and building muscle mass, any form of physical training helps to burn calories.
It also promotes the release of growth hormones, adrenaline and testosterone, allowing body fat to be used as an energy source instead of stored. At a time when obesity and diabetes are popping up, exercise and resistance training can offer huge health benefits.
Research shows that people who regularly train run less risk of developing dangerous visceral fat (organ fat) and are generally healthier compared to people who do not exercise or hardly exercise.
You also need to know that physical training is good to keep your stress under control. It helps regulate hormones and produces a neurotransmitter endorphin , the ‘happiness hormone’ that works as a kind of natural ‘feel good’ drug.
How often should you exercise?
Try to be physically active at least three times a week for 45-60 minutes. A combination of aerobic exercises and strength training is the best. Therefore, try to include interval training (HIIT) in your weekly schedule.
Physical exercise should never be missing from your busy weekly schedule. But of course don’t overdo it. You have to take into account that too much exercise lowers leptin levels and increases appetite ( source ).
Exercise must therefore be balanced with sufficient rest and recovery, because overtraining can lead to other health problems ( source ).
Tip # 5: Take an ‘everything is allowed’ meal one day a week
When you experience a long-term calorie deficit (due to a calorie-restricted diet), your leptin levels decrease.
This reduction in leptin levels can make it more difficult to lose weight even if you eat even less. That’s because it causes your metabolism to work slower. So you need even fewer calories to stay on weight.
In that case, an ‘ everything is allowed’ meal , or a cheat meal, can offer a solution. An everything is allowed meal is a meal where you can eat whatever you want. For example, think of a shawarma hair salon or a pizza.
Normally this type of food is out of the question … but in this case you can just eat it. You usually consume a lot more calories with such a meal. They are a useful tool when you normally follow a low-calorie diet.
They work by temporarily increasing your daily calorie intake, which confuses your body by thinking that you get a lot of fats. This increases your leptin levels.
Several small studies have found positive results with so-called cheat meals. Because such meals help maintain your metabolism, they can also help you lose weight in the long term ( source ).
Strange but true!
Tip # 6: Ensure a good night’s sleep
A good night’s sleep is the key to a healthy hormone balance. Chronic sleep deprivation has been associated with decreased leptin levels and impaired insulin levels ( source ).
To control stress hormones such as cortisol and to prevent chronic inflammation associated with chronic stress, it is important that you sleep well and adequately (around 8 hours a night) and also take daily moments to relax.
Something as simple as reading a book, listening to relaxing music or taking a warm bath can help you to relax.
Leptin and ghrelin
Leptin and ghrelin are two of the many hormones that help to regulate your metabolism, appetite and body weight.
Although leptin is considered the most important ‘satiety hormone’ because it helps to control your appetite, ghrelin is considered the most important ‘hunger hormone’ because it increases your desire to eat.
Leptin is mainly excreted in fat cells, as well as the stomach, heart, placenta and skeletal muscle. Leptin reduces hunger.
Ghrelin is mainly excreted in the stomach wall. Ghrelin increases hunger.
Ghreline was discovered 7 years after leptin. But due to the disappointment of leptin against obesity, the scientific interest was less. Your stomach makes ghrelin when it’s empty. Just like leptin, ghrelin enters the blood and eventually ends up in the hypothalamus, where it tells the brain that you are hungry ( source ).
When the ghrelin and leptin levels are disturbed, it can affect your ability to eat when you are hungry. This can lead to changes in your body weight and other consequences. Although these hormones have opposite effects, they work together and it is important that they are regulated.
Can leptin and ghrelin levels explain why people have so much trouble losing weight?
A 2010 study looked at how ghrelin and leptin levels are related to weight gain after dieting.
The researchers put more than 160 overweight men and women on a calorie-restricted diet that lasted 8 weeks. The diet was 30% less than the total energy consumption of the participants, consisting of 15% protein, 30% fats and 55% carbohydrates. There was no change in physical activity, the participants only ate fewer calories.
After 8 weeks on a diet the participants lost on average 5% of their body weight. The men lost an average of 5.9% and the women 4.5%. Some people lost more than 5% of their body weight, while others lost less. This may not seem that interesting … until you look at the blood samples!
The participants who lost more weight (> 5%) saw a greater decrease in their leptin and insulin levels compared to the participants who had lost less weight.
For both men and women, ghrelin levels were higher (meaning that they were more hungry) at the end of the diet, but for those who lost a lot of weight, ghrelin levels decreased.
Ghrelin appears to be affected by the release of the growth hormone, which differs in men and women ( source ). Women also appear to be much more sensitive than men to leptin levels, unless men are given estrogen.
In recent years, leptin supplement has become quite popular. They promise to reduce appetite and make it easier for you to lose weight.
But do leptin supplements really do what they promise?
In fact, most leptin supplements contain no leptin at all! Many supplements are promoted as leptin pills, but most pills contain a mix of different ingredients (alpha lipoic acid, fish oil, green tea extract ) to help reduce inflammation and thereby increase leptin sensitivity ( source ).
In rare cases, the use of leptin supplement may be useful for people who do not produce nearly any leptin, but for most people these supplements do very little.