What is Leptin?
Monday, January 12, 2009
Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist
I have spent more than twenty years on the front lines of clinical nutrition helping thousands of people solve very difficult health problems – naturally. In all these years I have never encountered more powerful principles of health than those relating to leptin.
Leptin is the king of hormones, the commander and chief of virtually everything that takes place in your body. Understanding how leptin works and applying that information to your day to day life can totally change your health. This is especially true regarding issues of weight management, thyroid function, stress, mental capability, inflammation, immunity, reproduction, and cardiovascular health.
Leptin is actually a hormone – meaning that once it is released it will travel to another area of your body to make things happen – similar to the idea of placing a phone call to someone you wish to speak with and asking them to do something. In the case of leptin it is actually made in your white adipose tissue or stored fat. This finding alone has revolutionized the entire field of endocrinology – as previously stored fat was just thought to be a warehouse for extra calories. Our new understanding means that your stored fat is actually a metabolic organ, much like your thyroid gland or adrenal glands.
Once leptin is released from your fat it enters your blood and travels up to your brain, delivering a message as to how much fuel you have on hand. When your brain answers the leptin phone call and listens to the message, it tells you how fast you can run your metabolism based on how much gas is in your gas tank. In a sense the leptin phone call to your brain is like a gas gauge in your car. You have no way to see how much gas is in your tank – you rely on the gauge, before you pull over and fill ’er up. Likewise, your subconscious brain has no way to see how much stored fat you have on hand, it relies on the leptin gauge to determine your state of overall nutrition and fuel reserves.
If the leptin gauge is reading low it means eat more. When you’ve eaten enough, leptin levels rise, and the leptin gauge in your subconscious brain now says your tank is full – resulting in a full signal. One of the most basic leptin problems encountered by any person who is overweight is that their leptin gauge is sticky, or in more advanced cases broken. This means that you will have a subconscious drive to eat more food than you really need, in order to feel satisfied.
Once you do get a leptin-related full signal then permission is given for your body’s metabolism to get in gear and go. Leptin acts like a traffic cop in your brain – when levels are adequate the speed limit is raised and your metabolism can run faster. When leptin levels are too low your brain thinks there is a famine and your metabolic rate is set to hibernation mode so that you don’t perish from malnutrition. Your subconscious brain has no idea that there is food on every corner.
Since leptin is controlling the rate your body makes energy, and since energy is needed by everything in your body to do anything, leptin issues are core to survival and your health. This is why leptin is so powerful, and why I call it the king of hormones.
Now most people will eat until they get a full signal, and many people who are overweight ignore their internal full signal and eat compulsively until all food in sight is gone. This means they are responding to environmental cues – something I call the SEE FOOD diet, meaning any food that is seen will be eaten. Unfortunately, this type of adverse eating behavior actually causes the leptin gas gauge to become sticky which means you will feel compelled to eat more food than you truly need just to get a full signal. This exact problem is tormenting millions of Americans – there is little wonder why we have an obesity epidemic on our hands.
What I have described to you this far are some of the very basic concepts of how leptin works. As it turns out leptin also plays a major role in regulating the function of your brain, the function of your immune system, and the coordinated efforts of all other hormones in your body – including thyroid function, adrenal function and stress, and reproductive function.
Even though there are now over 15,000 studies relating to leptin in the scientific literature, many of you may have never heard of leptin before. The reason for this is rather simple, most of the research on leptin has been done to make leptin drugs for weight loss and such drugs simply don’t work. And as you can guess from such a large number of studies it is not for a lack of research effort.
The discovery of leptin is an interesting story itself. Back in 1994 scientists at Rockefeller University were able to show that a particular strain of obese mice lacked a gene that prevented them from making an important hormone, which they later named leptin. Lacking this gene the mice had no control over their body weight or feeding behavior. These mice became three times the weight of normal mice, developed type II diabetes, lost reproductive function, and always wanted to eat. The researchers synthesized leptin and when they gave it to these mice they lost all their extra weight, became un-diabetic, went back to normal reproductive function, and developed a normal appetite. The science community thought this would be the greatest weight loss discovery of all time, and in many ways you can say that it is – but not in terms of giving leptin drugs to people.
This is because only a handful of people are like the mice who are unable to make leptin at all. 99.9 % of the overweight population make way too much leptin from their extra pounds of fat. All this extra leptin actually clogs leptin function, sort of like a traffic jam, and induces a problem called leptin resistance – which means that even though there is far too much leptin it isn’t getting into your brain correctly and thus your brain is behaving just like the mice that don’t make any leptin at all. You always know you have a problem with leptin resistance because you will tend to be obsessive about food, thinking about your next meal too often, eating foods you know you shouldn’t, and feeling like it is a constant battle of your will just to do the right things to be healthy – that is if you are even trying. If you live to eat, you have a leptin problem. If you eat to live, you are likely in much better control of leptin.
At any rate, you obviously can’t give a leptin drug to someone who already has too much leptin – a problem that continues to baffle those who are looking for the next pharmaceutical blockbuster weight loss drug. No, I’m sorry to say that the only way to get a handle on this problem is to learn the ins and outs of leptin and how to eat to be in harmony with the hormone. It’s unfortunate, but our bodies came without an owner’s manual – and most of your trial and error regarding dieting is error. Well its time for you to learn how to be in charge, there is a right way to live and eat in harmony with leptin.
Welcome to a new world. May you never again be the same.
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