Medically reviewed by Dr. George Kosco, DO on August 25, 2020
I often say that leptin is a hormone we like because it tells our brains to turn off hunger and keep our weight under control. But that only happens if leptin’s message is getting to the brain. In this post, I explain leptin resistance, why it is common, and how it affects your ability to lose weight and control hunger.
Leptin Resistance Summary
- Leptin is a hormone made by your fat cells that tells your brain when you are full and have enough fat in storage.
- When you have leptin resistant, your brain ignores leptin’s message to turn off hunger and ramp up calorie burning.
- Risk factors for leptin resistance include excess belly fat, increased inflammation, and being overweight for many years.
- It is unclear if leptin resistance can be reversed, but weight can be lost with positive lifestyle and diet changes, including more physical activity, better sleep, stress control, avoiding processed foods, following a low-carb diet, and practicing intermittent fasting.
Leptin Resistance Explained-Trouble Losing Weight & Hunger [Video]
In this video, you’ll learn…
- What leptin does in your body.
- What causes leptin resistance.
- Ways to reverse it!
What is Leptin’s Role in Hunger?
In your body, several hormones influence how hungry you feel. The main one that tells your brain that you are hungry is called ghrelin. If your stomach is growling, it’s ghrelin.
The main hormone that tells your brain that you are full is leptin. It is the hormone that keeps you from overeating.
Your hypothalamus is the part of the brain that reads these hormones. What it is really reading is whether your body has a lot of energy available or just a small amount.
If you just ate, there is a lot of energy available, so leptin, along with insulin, is elevated, and your hypothalamus gets the message that you are full and to move the hunger switch to the off position.
Between meals, the readily available calories are not there, causing the release of ghrelin from your now empty stomach. That ghrelin travels to the hypothalamus to flip the hunger switch on. This is how your hormones fluctuate throughout the day, which explains why hunger goes up and down as the day goes on.
What is Leptin’s Role in Losing Weight?
Energy does not just come from eating; your body can store energy in the form of body fat. Here too, the amount of available energy determines which hormone gets produced.
If your body weight is low, it triggers the release of ghrelin, which not only makes you hungry but also plays a role in slowing your metabolism, making it easier to store fat than to burn it (1) (2).
If your body weight is high, then you have a lot of stored fat. Leptin is made by your fat cells, so overweight people have a lot of leptin floating around, which should be a good thing, right?
We like leptin because it turns off hunger and regulates how much fat is stored on the body. Whenever the body gets too heavy, leptin should naturally help you burn off those extra pounds. Unfortunately, this is not how it works for many people who are overweight, and the reason is leptin resistance.
What is Leptin Resistance?
When you have leptin resistant, your brain ignores leptin’s message to turn off hunger and ramp up calorie burning. The results are obvious. Without your brain getting the memo from leptin telling it that there is more than enough food or body fat to keep you going, it assumes that the energy is not there and that you are heading toward starvation.
To prevent that from happening, your brain keeps the hunger switch locked in the ‘on’ position and reduces your metabolism to conserve energy, so you don’t burn calories too quickly.
With leptin resistance, you can be carrying 50 pounds of unwanted weight, yet feel like you must use every ounce of willpower to fight hunger and stick with your diet.
What Causes Leptin Resistance?
There are a few things that contribute to the development of leptin resistance.
Carrying too much belly fat is linked to this condition and may be because abdominal or visceral fat is more metabolically active than other forms of fat on your body. This increased metabolic activity increases the release of inflammatory substances and free fatty acids into the blood (3) (4).
This increased inflammation could interfere with hypothalamus signaling leading to leptin resistance (5).
It is also possible that the elevated free fatty acids in your bloodstream could further interfere with leptin’s signaling.
It is also possible that simply being overweight for many years causes leptin resistance. The connection here is that the extra fat causes a chronically high level of leptin, which could desensitize the brain to leptin’s signal.
The cruel joke is that being overweight, carrying a lot of belly fat, and having a lot of inflammation, which is a consequence of being overweight, causes leptin resistance, which causes hunger and slows weight loss. Unfortunately, with nearly two-thirds of the population being overweight, this is why leptin resistance is so common.
Ways to Reverse Leptin Resistance
What do you do if this is you? Well, there is no doubt that being leptin resistant can add to the challenge of losing weight, but it doesn’t make weight loss impossible.
Whether or not the condition can be completely reversed is not clear, but lifestyle changes like becoming more physically active, improving the quality of your sleep, and reducing stress will certainly help.
Improving your diet will give you the quickest and most noticeable results. The best place to start is to avoid inflammatory foods, namely refined carbohydrates and processed foods that contain unhealthy fats like soybean and other vegetable oils.
In a practical sense, this means avoiding fried foods from restaurants because they typically use vegetable oils in their deep fryers, and cooking whole food meals at home that do not come from a box.
Following a low carb diet and practicing intermittent fasting will give you additional weight-loss advantages. These healthy strategies are effective ways to reduce fats in your blood that can interfere with leptin signals (6) (7).
If you are looking to change your diet, I have some free materials available on my website, including a list of 100 low-carb foods that will help you get started on a healthy low carb diet. Thanks for reading and have a great week!
(1) Lv, You, et al. “Ghrelin, a gastrointestinal hormone, regulates energy balance and lipid metabolism.” Bioscience reports 38.5 (2018).
(2) Yin, Xuefeng, et al. “Ghrelin fluctuation, what determines its production?.” Acta Biochim Biophys Sin 41.3 (2009): 188-197.
(3) Nesto, Richard W. “Obesity: a major component of the metabolic syndrome.” Texas Heart Institute Journal 32.3 (2005): 387.
(4) Ebbert, Jon O., and Michael D. Jensen. “Fat depots, free fatty acids, and dyslipidemia.” Nutrients 5.2 (2013): 498-508.
(5) Thaler, Joshua P., et al. “Obesity is associated with hypothalamic injury in rodents and humans.” The Journal of clinical investigation 122.1 (2012): 153-162.
(6) Banks, William A., et al. “Triglycerides induce leptin resistance at the blood-brain barrier.” Diabetes 53.5 (2004): 1253-1260.
(7) Samaha, Frederick F., et al. “A low-carbohydrate as compared with a low-fat diet in severe obesity.” New England Journal of Medicine 348.21 (2003): 2074-2081.
About the Author:
Dr. Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.