We are hard-wired to eat. There’s incredibly complex neurochemistry and physiology at play when your brain tells you to eat and when it tells you to put down the fork. This process involves hormonal signals that arise from your digestive tract when you consume food, from your emotions, from your environment, and even from your body fat.
The balance and interaction between the primary appetite-controlling hormones and the appetite-stimulating hormones plays a key role in regulating your food intake. When the balance is thrown off, you lose or gain weight. Taking control of your hormones can help you cut cravings and stay slim.
Understanding your hunger hormones
When your stomach is empty, it releases a hormone called grehlin, sending a message to your brain to stimulate your feeding centre. While the feeding centre is stimulated, your satiety centre is shut down — your appetite increases and you feel the urge to eat.
After you eat, your satiety centre becomes stimulated by hormones released from your stomach and intestines as they stretch when filled with food, or when fat and protein are present. That’s why we should eat those two macronutrients at every meal and snack, as outlined in The Supercharged Hormone Diet it’s one simple step towards better appetite control. This gut-brain connection is your body’s way of telling you to stop eating.
Leptin and MSH are two other hormones involved in long-term appetite control. Leptin travels to your brain from your fat cells, to stimulate the production of a peptide in the brain called MSH. When you are trying to stay slim and strong, MSH is your friend — it tells the satiety centre in your brain that you are full and decreases your appetite. MSH also sends a powerful signal to the brain to boost metabolism and to burn calories. These two hormones — leptin and MSH — shut off the feeding center of the brain and increase your metabolism by stimulating peptides in the brain, which then inhibits food intake.
How to control your appetite
Although the science behind appetite is complex, there are basic guidelines that can help you to take charge:
Factors that make you want to eat:
- The sight and smell of food
- Being overweight or obese (high body fat)
- A variety of foods and mixture of tastes (this is why buffets and standing in front of the fridge grazing are our downfall!)
- Cold body temperature
- Lack of sunlight or bright lights
- Our internal body clock — we tend to get hungry at similar times each day, and our appetite increases in the winter
- Alcohol consumption
- Jet lag, sleep deprivation and shift work
- High intake of carbohydrates and lack of fibre and fats, which help us feel full and satisfied
- Brain chemistry imbalance (low serotonin and dopamine) and an unhealthy digestive system
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and artificial sweeteners
- Emotional causes — stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, boredom
Factors that quiet your appetite:
- Out of sight = out of mind!
- Maintain a lean body (low amounts of body fat tissue)
- Limit flavours and exposure to a variety of foods by avoiding buffets or grazing in front of the cupboard or fridge
- Warm body temperature — have a hot shower, drink a mug of hot water or do some push ups to warm up
- A healthy dose of sunshine or bright light
- Eat regularly throughout the day, starting with a balanced breakfast
- Limit consumption of alcohol to one glass of wine after your meal
- Stay well-hydrated
- Get enough, and good quality, sleep
- Eating protein, carbohydrate and fats mixed at each meal and snack
- Balanced brain chemistry (sufficient serotonin and dopamine) and a healthy digestive system
- Consume enough fibre in your diet and avoid processed carbohydrates, artificial sweeteners, fructose and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Manage stress and feel satisfied (sexually and otherwise)
Here’s the thing: it takes time for hormonal messages to reach the feeding centres of your brain. The idea of sparking your appetite by serving hors d’oeuvres before a meal may have a solid scientific basis. According to a study posted in the October 2006 issue of the journal Cell Metabolism, researchers found that when rats were trained to a strict feeding regime, the brain activity in their hunger centres spiked with their first bites of food. Researchers also found that the brain centres responsible for telling us when we are full or satisfied appear to turn on as soon as food hits our stomach, rather than when we’ve eaten enough to be satisfied. It appears that our drive to eat, or our appetite, is massively stimulated when we start eating, but begins to get signals to turn off once food gets to our stomach. So enjoy an appetizer before your main meal, or practice eating and chewing your food slowly — these habits can help you to avoid consuming too much in one meal.
Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and her newest release, The Supercharged Hormone Diet, now available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique.