- Leptin Resistance: The Other Hormone Important for Managing Diabetes
- How the Hormone Leptin Works in the Body
- Understanding Leptin's Role and Why It Matters for Diabetes
- How to Increase Leptin Sensitivity if You Have Diabetes
- Leptin Resistance: What It Is & How to Fix It
- The Culprit: Leptin Resistance
- Leptin Stimulating Foods and Lifestyle Factors
- How to Fix Leptin Resistance
- How the Leptin Hormone Works
- Additional Reading
Leptin Resistance: The Other Hormone Important for Managing Diabetes
When most people think of diabetes and hormones, insulin — which controls blood sugar levels by ferrying glucose to cells for energy — is usually the first that springs to mind.
But there are many hormones at play when it comes to blood sugar levels and weight, and anyone living with diabetes or prediabetes should consider them all when striving to better manage their symptoms.
Key among these is leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells that helps the body regulate energy by telling the brain it’s had enough to eat, according to a review published in December 2012 in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism.
How the Hormone Leptin Works in the Body
“Leptin’s action is to inhibit appetite, to stimulate the burning up of fatty acids, to decrease glucose, and to reduce overall body fat and weight,” says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The problem, Sheth explains, is, just insulin resistance — whereby cells are resistant to insulin, leading glucose to accumulate in the blood — people can develop leptin resistance, an effect that can further complicate their diabetes management.
When this occurs, Sheth says, “People can gain weight, have increased body fat, and, even though there are adequate fat stores, their brains are getting the signal that they are hungry, so they eat more. It's a vicious cycle.”
Unfortunately, just adding more leptin, as people with diabetes often do with insulin injections, can’t fix this problem because the issue isn’t always how much leptin is in the body, but whether the body is able to process it efficiently.
In fact, for people without diabetes, or for those who have been diagnosed with prediabetes, leptin resistance can impact the development of the condition later on.
“A person may have high leptin levels, but if their body is resistant to that leptin, those people are more at risk for diabetes,” says Joanne Rinker, RD, CDE, director of practice and content development at the American Association of Diabetes Educators.
Understanding Leptin's Role and Why It Matters for Diabetes
While everyone should know about leptin’s impact in the body, people with diabetes and prediabetes should be especially aware of how it interacts with other hormones, especially insulin. “Leptin resistance almost always goes hand-in-hand with insulin resistance, so when people with diabetes have higher insulin resistance they might also have higher leptin resistance,” Sheth says.
When insulin resistance causes spikes of insulin in the blood, the brain has trouble estimating leptin levels.
In turn, this lower sensitivity to leptin leads to many problems, such as food cravings, hunger after meals, poor energy levels, weight gain (or trouble losing weight), and — perhaps most troubling of all for people with diabetes — higher levels of insulin, which can lead to too-high blood sugar levels, and symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, high blood pressure, and other potentially serious health outcomes.
When leptin sensitivity is improved, people report higher energy, better control over cravings and appetite, faster metabolism, and lower insulin levels. These results have led some scientists to believe leptin could be used to treat symptoms of diabetes, and possibly even reverse the condition, according to a review published in April 2013 in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
How to Increase Leptin Sensitivity if You Have Diabetes
People with diabetes can benefit from taking action to manage their leptin levels, and for people with prediabetes, it can even help reduce their risk for type 2 diabetes. Here are some tips anyone with diabetes or prediabetes can use to increase their leptin sensitivity:
Enjoy a balanced diet.
Because each person’s experience of diabetes is unique, talk to your doctor, dietitian, or certified diabetes educator about a meal plan that will naturally increase leptin sensitivity.
“Eat a more Mediterranean-style diet [with] whole grains, lean protein, and some heart-healthy fats,” suggests Sheth, adding that it’s also important to cut back on refined grains and added sugars.
Stay active, but on your own terms. “If a person with diabetes wants to be active every day, it has to be whatever it means to that person. They don’t have to go run a marathon, they just have to be more active than the day before,” Rinker says. “[Regular activity] will help decrease insulin resistance, which is also going to decrease leptin resistance.”
Eat at regular times.
Fasting regimens — such as the 5:2 Diet, a weight-loss plan consisting of two fasting days and five nonfasting days per week — that claim to increase leptin sensitivity have become trendy, but for people with diabetes, Sheth says it’s important to time meals to keep hormone levels steady. “Eat on a schedule and be consistent so you don't have huge swings in your appetite hormones,” she explains.
Get the right nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids. “Omega-3 fats are known to be helpful because they increase the number of dopamine receptors in the body, so you feel good.
And omega-3 fats are also anti-inflammatory, and that could be good for improving your insulin and leptin sensitivity,” Sheth says.
Omega-3s are naturally found in walnuts, flaxseed, and salmon, among other foods.
Take time to reduce stress levels. “Stress plays a great role in hunger and satiety issues,” Sheth says. Whether you to unwind by reading a book, enjoying nature, or spending time with a friend, anything you do to relax will help have a positive impact on leptin sensitivity.
Get enough sleep. People with diabetes should be aware that skimping on shut-eye can dramatically impact hormone levels, including leptin.
“If you get two hours less sleep than your body needs, you can increase your ghrelin levels — the other appetite hormone — and that can negatively impact your leptin and insulin levels.” Sheth says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends seven hours per night for most adults.
While both Sheth and Rinker believe it’s important for people with diabetes to be aware of leptin’s role in the body, they both emphasize that leptin is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to managing diabetes symptoms. “The thing that is going to help the most is getting the body in balance, and really focusing on healthy eating habits and healthy living,” Rinker says.
Leptin Resistance: What It Is & How to Fix It
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Do you struggle with weight and have trouble sticking to a diet? Crave (junk) foods, especially at night? Eat and never feel full?
A little something called leptin resistance may be to blame!
These are all indications that you could have some leptin issues. Leptin is a master hormone in the body that controls hunger and feelings of satiety. Leptin is secreted by adipose (fat) tissue, so the more overweight a person is, typically, the higher his or her leptin levels.
The Culprit: Leptin Resistance
According to Mark’s Daily Apple:
Leptin is the lookout hormone – the gatekeeper of fat metabolism, monitoring how much energy an organism takes in. It surveys and maintains the energy balance in the body, and it regulates hunger via three pathways:
- By counteracting the effects of neuropeptide Y, a potent feeding stimulant secreted by the hypothalamus and certain gut cells
- By counteracting the effects of anandamide, another feeding stimulant
- By promoting the production of a-MSH, an appetite suppressant
It is also directly tied to insulin levels. Many people these days are leptin resistant and there are many health problems tied to this problem. High leptin levels have been tied to high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease and stroke, as well as blood sugar related problems.
High levels of leptin and the accompanying leptin resistance can also decrease fertility, age you more quickly and contribute to obesity. If you’re trying to lose weight or improve a health problem, chances are you have leptin resistance. If you can’t seem to stick to health changes, chances are you have leptin resistance.
In other words, if you want to make lasting health changes or lose weight and keep it off, you have to fix your leptin. The good news is: if you’ve failed at diets or health changes in the past, it was ly because you failed to regulate your leptin levels and doing so can help you finally make lasting changes.
Leptin resistance and its related problems are a complex problem involving the endocrine system and reversing them requires more than simple calorie restriction or will power.
Leptin Stimulating Foods and Lifestyle Factors
As with all hormone issues, leptin resistance is a complex issue with no singular cause, but there are many factors that can negatively impact leptin levels including:
- Fructose consumption (especially in forms high fructose corn syrup)
- High stress levels
- Consumption of a lot of simple carbs
- Lack of sleep
- High insulin levels (vicious cycle here)
- Exercising too much, especially if your hormones are already damaged
- Grain and lectin consumption
Leptin is the satiety hormone produced by fat cells, so it would seem logical that those with more fat cells would produce more leptin, which would signal the body to eat less food and weight would normalize. This over-simplified idea is great in theory but doesn’t always occur, especially in those with damaged metabolisms or endocrine problems (which includes most overweight people).
According to this article:
The problem is not in the production of leptin, but rather, studies show that the majority of overweight individuals who are having difficulty losing weight have a leptin resistance, where the leptin is unable to produce its normal effects to stimulate weight loss.
This leptin resistance is sensed as starvation, so multiple mechanisms are activated to increase fat stores, rather than burn excess fat stores.
Leptin resistance also stimulates the formation of reverse T3, which blocks the effects of thyroid hormone on metabolism (discussed below).
So, the person is eating excess food but the body thinks it is starving and tells the person to eat more. It’s easy to see how this cycle could contribute to weight gain!
How to Fix Leptin Resistance
As I said, this is a complex problem, but not an irreversible one. The good news is you feel better quickly once it’s under control.
In short, the (non-negotiable) factors that will help improve leptin response are:
- Say no to sugar. Eat little to no simple starches, refined foods, sugars, and fructose. Eat quality carbs from veggies instead.
- Get enough protein and fat. Consuming a large amount of protein and healthy fats first thing in the morning, as soon after waking as possible. This promotes satiety and gives the body the building blocks to make hormones. My go-to is a large scramble with 2-3 eggs, vegetables and left over meat from the night before cooked in coconut oil.
- Get regular sleep. This step may be more important than all the rest combined. (Yes, really!) Be in bed by 10 (no excuses) and optimize your sleep!
- Spend time in nature. Get outside during the day, preferably barefoot on the ground, in mid-day sun with some skin exposed. Here’s why.
- DON’T SNACK!!! When you are constantly eating, even small amounts, during the day it keeps your liver working and doesn’t give hormones a break. Try to space meals at least 4 hours apart and don’t eat for at least 4 hours before bed. This includes drinks with calories but herbal teas, water, coffee or tea without cream or sugar are fine. For creative ways to do this even as a busy mom, see this post.
- Don’t workout at first. If you are really leptin resistant, this will just be an additional stress on the body. Let your body heal a little first, then add in the exercise.
- Change how you exercise. When you do exercise, do only sprints and weight lifting. Walk or swim if you want to but don’t do cardio just for the sake of cardio. It’s just a stress on the body. High intensity workouts and weight lifting, on the other hand, give the hormone benefits of working out without the stress from excess cardio and are great after the first few weeks. Also, work out in the evening, not the morning, to support hormone levels.
- Detox. Remove toxins from your life as these are a stress on your body. Get rid of processed foods, commercial deodorants (make your own instead), and switch to natural cleaning products. How? I wrote a whole book on the topic with an easy-to-follow detox lifestyle plan and recipes.
- Increase omega-3, lower omega-6. Eat (or take) more omega-3s by eating fish, grass-fed meats, or chia seeds) and minimize your omega-6 consumption (vegetable oils, conventional meats, grains, etc,) to get lower inflammation and help support healthy leptin levels.
How the Leptin Hormone Works
If you want to know more, here’s a great video that explains more about the leptin hormone cascade and how it impacts your health. Also check out the additional resources at the end of the post.
Dr. Jack Kruse (a neurosurgeon) and Stephan Guyenet (an obesity researcher) have both written in depth about the causes of leptin imbalance and ways to reverse it. I highly recommend these resources for more information on their methods of correcting leptin resistance:
Do you have any of these issues? Think leptin is a struggle for you? Try this and let me know how it goes!
Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder and CEO of Wellness Mama and Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a wife and mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.
com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.
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