Health Conundrum:  Do Free Radicals Suppress Your Appetite?

By: Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist
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I like to think that my efforts to educate everyone make you smarter and healthier as a result.  Try this puzzle on for size:  A new study in mice that were made obese by constant overeating shows that there are fewer free radicals in the hypothalamus of their brains, fueling brain circuits that reinforce cravings.  When free radical levels are increased, then cravings are reduced.  Unfortunately, when free radicals are increased more brain damage occurs.  “It’s a catch-22,” said senior author Tamas Horvath, “On one hand, you must have these critical signaling molecules to stop eating. On the other hand, if exposed to them chronically, free radicals damage cells and promote aging.”  If you understand why then you are smarter than the researchers who did the study.

Let me give you some more clues.  The hypothalamus gland of your subconscious brain is trying to figure out when you need to eat and when you don’t need to eat.  This gland does not have two eyes that can look in the mirror and see you have plenty of extra fat in storage.  It also does not know that in America there is junk food on every corner.  Rather, this gland has to interpret incoming signals to decide if you should stop at the gas station and fill it up or if you should get back on the race track and put the pedal to the metal.

As you eat a meal leptin levels rise.  When leptin registers in your hypothalamus following a meal it tells you to stop eating and get going.  Nerve circuits involved with this go signal are stimulatory in nature, the melanocortin system involving pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC), which reduces feeding.  The researchers found that the POMC system needs free radicals in order to work properly.  On the other side of the coin are neurons that stimulate eating, neuropeptide Y (NPY) and agouti-related peptide (AgRP). In response to constant overeating the researchers found that this system suppressed free radical production as a defense mechanism, leading to ongoing cravings.  We know that too many free radicals are “bad” for us as they damage tissue and increase cancer risk.  On the other hand, this study says they are needed so as to suppress appetite.  Why do you think this problem and paradox happens and how can you solve it?

You will have trouble figuring out this puzzle if you think in terms of “good” and “bad,” which is the level of health education required to be gullible enough to take a drug to lower your “bad” cholesterol numbers or “bad” blood pressure numbers.  It is far more important to understand the efficiency of how your body is working so as to figure out the source of problems and solve them.

Leptin is a primary antioxidant hormone, especially in your brain.  As far as your brain is concerned leptin acts partly like oil in your car engine, providing the lubrication for it to run faster.  Free radicals cause friction as a side effect.  However, free radicals are normal signaling molecules in many systems in your body.  In health, this surge of free radicals related to your full signal is buffered by the simultaneous presence of leptin in your brain.  When you eat too much too often, then leptin does not get into your brain properly yet the free radicals keep activating in response to food intake, thereby causing you to have too many free radicals in your brain without enough protection.  This causes brain damage from overeating.  To compensate, the opposing set of neurons build themselves up to absorb and neutralize the free radicals based on the idea that having food cravings is not as bad as having brain damage.  Unfortunately, the side effect of this back-up defense system is continuing to overeat, thus locking in the weight problem.

The solution is not to take a dose of free radicals (which was shown to work in the study) or to decrease your level of antioxidants (which would be a huge mistake).  The solution is to restore the efficiency of leptin getting into your brain properly, which gives your brain protection so your nerves can get in gear without friction and free radical damage.

The basic solution is to simply follow the Five Rules of the Leptin Diet, which allows leptin to enter your brain normally.  Other nutrients that help suppress your appetite, such as pine nut oil, can be used to help get you on track.  This study does show that cravings are not just a simple case of lacking a nutrient.  It shows that nerve cells may develop abnormal structure in response to chronic overeating and it may take a number of months to change them back into a healthy situation.  This means that once you get on track you need to stay on track long enough for nerves to heal, otherwise you will be back eating the wrong things and not making progress.  Also, managing stress is of the utmost importance in the context of this problem.  If your stress level ramps up inflammation in your brain it is likely you will crave food to help stop the free radical damage.  This study shows that stress eating may very well be a defense mechanism against brain injury – though it is not a desirable way to deal with stress.  It is far better to have good stress management skills, get enough sleep, regularly exercise, and take brain support nutrition that helps keep your head above water.

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