Leptin, Thyroid, and Weight Loss
Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist
It is very common for overweight individuals to have a majority of the symptoms associated with a hypothyroid-like condition. This is especially true for those who have a history of yo-yo dieting or have difficulty losing weight by cutting back on calories and trying to exercise more.
A great deal of confusion exists among patients and the medical community itself regarding the precise role that thyroid hormone plays in obesity. This is partly because thyroid lab tests often don’t correlate with the patient’s hypothyroid symptoms (patient is complaining, yet the lab tests are normal or not too far off). And it is partly because many people who are normal weight or underweight also have hypothyroid-like symptoms or hypothyroidism by lab test. I’ll explain these paradoxical situations in this article.
Numerous discoveries in the past 15 years have proven that problems with the fat hormone leptin are often the primary cause of many of the hypothyroid symptoms in overweight individuals. Discoveries in the past year have elucidated how problems with nerves in the subconscious brain induce thyroid malfunction.
These discoveries open a whole new world of possibilities for those struggling with long-standing hypothyroid-like problems and difficult body-weight issues. To understand how simple and basic problems—left unresolved—can lead to more complex problems that are much more difficult to solve (though solvable), let’s begin by understanding simple-case thyroid and leptin problems.
Simple-Case Thyroid Problems
A shortage of active thyroid hormone, known as T3 (triiodothyronine), is a primary and simple reason why so many individuals struggle with the symptoms of hypothyroid. Another common problem is that your thyroid lacks nutrients to make basic thyroid hormone, known as T4 (thyroxin). Your thyroid can be inflamed or “stressed,” which gets in the way of making T4 at an optimal rate. Your liver can be inflamed or stressed, which gets in the way of converting T4 to T3 at an optimal rate. Cells around your body require basic nutrition to carry out the metabolic instructions that T3 gives them; otherwise it is no different than not having enough T3.
Any or all of these simple-case thyroid problems happen long before true hypothyroidism, even though they cause a person to have some or many of the symptoms of hypothyroidism (this is one reason lab tests often don’t show a frank thyroid hormone problem – there really isn’t one). Even when a person has true hypothyroidism by lab test, there may be a co-existing simple-case thyroid problem, often of long duration.
Thus, people with thyroid symptoms, even those on thyroid medication, can seek to improve their healthy metabolic function by providing basic nutrients that enhance the formation of thyroid hormone in the thyroid gland, enhance the activation of T4 to the biologically active T3, and enhance the nutritional ability of cells to utilize thyroid hormone.
Supplements for Thyroid Health
I designed different dietary supplements to fill these specific needs. Thyroid Helper® provides the selenium your liver needs to convert T4 to T3. Along with selenium, manganese provides a boost of specific antioxidant enzymes inside your thyroid gland and in your liver, so that both organs can function in a less stressed and inflamed manner. Tyrosine is added to boost dopamine and nerve related thyroid formation, as well as provide the core molecule of thyroid hormone (T4 is one molecule of tyrosine surrounded by four molecules of iodine). Several herbs that are synergistic with these functions round out the very popular Thyroid Helper formula.*
I recommend a water-soluble and extremely biologically active form of iodine called Iosol Iodine. It is one of the best supplements to help individuals warm up. Iodine is needed for thyroid hormone formation. Unlike potassium iodide, which can clog the thyroid gland due to its poor solubility, Iosol readily washes away if it is not needed. It is hands down the best iodine on the market today.*
Daily Energy Multiple Vitamin contains biologically active co-enzyme B vitamins along with Krebs cycle cofactor nutrients that help turn on cellular engines so they can respond to T3 instructions. The superior biological uptake of these nutrients is key to helping your metabolism get in gear. Thus, our basic Thyroid Energy Package to support simple-case thyroid problems is Thyroid Helper®, Iosol Iodine, and Daily Energy Multiple Vitamin™.*
It is common sense to supply your thyroid system with basic nutrients and see how you respond. This may be all the support you need to feel better or it may be part of the support. Regardless, it is the basic place to get started – and this is true whether you are overweight, normal weight, or underweight.
Simple-Case Leptin Problems
Leptin is known as the fat hormone; it is made in your white adipose tissue or stored fat. Following a meal, leptin is released from your fat, enters your blood, and travels up to your brain where it delivers a message that you are full and also lets your subconscious brain know how much fuel you have on hand (like the gas gauge in your car). One of the simple-case leptin problems encountered by people who are overweight is that their leptin “gas gauge” is sticky, or in more advanced cases, broken. This is called leptin resistance because leptin is either not getting into your brain correctly or not registering properly in your hypothalamus gland once it does enter your brain. For a more complete description, read the article What is Leptin?.
If you are overweight you must eat in harmony with leptin or you cause considerable confusion in your subconscious brain. This results in fatigue and increased inflammation, along with great difficulty losing weight. Following the Five Rules of The Leptin Diet helps optimize leptin function in your body and unlock easier weight loss.
Rule 1: Never eat after dinner.
You can solve many simple-case leptin problems by following these guidelines. Learn more about The Leptin Diet.
Leptin problems create inflammation in your brain and around your body. In addition to eating quality food and following The Leptin Diet, various dietary supplements can enhance the way leptin works.
I designed Leptinal® to accomplish several goals: to enhance how fat burning is activated in your white adipose tissue, to reduce leptin resistance by enhancing triglyceride metabolism, and to improve leptin signaling within your brain, while simultaneously turning down the inflammation that fuels leptin and thyroid problems. Leptinal is a unique combination of DHA, GLA, tocotrienols, pomegranate, and citrus-derived polymethoxylated flavones. Because the essential fatty acids of DHA and GLA are woefully lacking in the typical American diet, they are key basics that should be supplemented to promote optimal leptin function that assists easier weight loss.*
Another simple-case leptin issue involves problems relating to how insulin functions in your body, resulting in food cravings – especially for sweets, and easy weight gain from eating carbohydrates. LeptiSlim® is specially designed to knock down these sweet cravings and support more optimal insulin function so that your body can process carbohydrates in a more efficient manner. It is a potent combination of metabolically-activating first milk colostrum, insulin-supportive chromium and vanadium, and the sweet-tooth-busting herbs gymnema sylvestre and inula racemosa.*
Covering your basic nutrient bases with Leptinal® and LeptiSlim®, while closely following the Five Rules of The Leptin Diet, is the best way to start addressing simple-case leptin problems.
Simple-Case Thyroid-Leptin Problems
How well leptin registers in your brain has a major bearing on how thyroid hormone is produced in your body. This is because one function of leptin is to set the long term energy spending policy of your body based on available food supply. Your subconscious brain interprets leptin resistance to mean a famine is going on, even though you are often eating too much on a regular basis. This is a faulty perception of starvation.
In this situation, leptin tells the TRH (thyroid releasing hormone) department in your hypothalamus gland to set thyroid hormone to a low level so that energy is conserved, otherwise your body may perish from starvation. Your hypothalamus then has a major influence over how much TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) your pituitary will produce, meaning that your subconscious brain intentionally turns down the volume on your metabolism so that you can survive a famine, which may not even exist.
This is a different issue from every other simple-case thyroid problem that I mention above, and if you have any of those problems as well, it just makes this thyroid-leptin problem even worse. This is also the reason for yo-yo dieting, as after a diet that evokes the leptin-driven starvation response, leptin commands that calories are stored as fat when more food is eaten. And the more times you have yo-yo dieted in the past the more likely you are to have thyroid-leptin problems when you try to diet in the future.
Researchers now believe that even small elevations in TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), rather than indicating a looming thyroid problem, in some cases actually predict an emerging leptin and insulin problem associated with weight gain. It was found that when weight was lost, TSH scores returned to normal. Another study shows very clearly that leptin driven weight gain actually inflames the thyroid gland and induces thyroid autoantibodies to form, as if the leptin driven obesity problems are punching the thyroid gland in the nose. Once again, thyroid autoantibodies returned to normal when weight was lost.
Another study shows one key symptom that flags a leptin and thyroid problem is a decrease in coordination. Are you bumping into things too often? This is because leptin-driven TRH signals that produce thyroid hormone also signal your cerebellum, which is involved with coordinating your physical movements. Once your thyroid-leptin system starts to stress out you may also not get a normal amount of coordination-related nerve conduction.
These studies, combined with a basic understanding of how and why leptin needs to have a main say in how much thyroid hormone is produced, indicate that leptin problems are a driving force behind thyroid problems. While some may think their sluggish thyroid problems led to obesity, it is mostly the other way around. Thus, improving simple-case leptin problems and losing weight will improve thyroid function.
A good place for anyone to start is with nutrients and diet that help correct simple-case thyroid issues and leptin problems, especially if you are also overweight.
Toxins Magnify Thyroid and Leptin Problems
One of the key factors that helps induce weight gain and reduces the ease with which you can lose weight is the issue of environmental chemicals, chemicals in food and water, and toxins from low grade infections (like Candida or bacterial overgrowth). This issue is always made worse if your internal plumbing systems aren’t up to the challenge (constipation, irritable bowel, liver issues, lymph stagnation, chemical sensitivity, fibromyalgia, etc.)
Some chemicals like perchlorate, chlorine, and fluoride can directly bind to your thyroid gland and reduce iodine uptake. Many other chemicals, especially the fat-soluble ones, can bind to thyroid cell membranes and participate in thyroid inflammation and thyroid autoantibody production.
Fat-soluble chemicals can readily cross your blood brain barrier and injure your hypothalamus gland so that it cannot sense thyroid or leptin messages accurately. Endotoxins from infections (lipopolysaccharides or LPS) directly interact in the Thyroid Releasing Hormone (TRH) region of your hypothalamus gland and intentionally turn down TRH production – interfering with thyroid hormone production. Endotoxins also make you hungry by elevating your stomach’s hunger signal, ghrelin.
Your liver, which is your main detoxification organ, is particularly sensitive to toxic excess. Because T4 is converted to T3 on the cell membranes of your liver, fat-soluble toxins readily interfere with thyroid hormone activation by your liver. One of the reasons Thyroid Helper® works so well is because it helps your liver cope with this type of toxic stress, while fueling the nutrients that your liver needs to perform the T4 to T3 conversion. Additional liver support, such as Daily Balancer™, may be needed to help your liver clear toxins more efficiently while simultaneously protecting liver cells.*
When your detox system can’t handle all the toxins, then your body looks for alternative ways to get rid of them. One of these backup systems is to stuff toxins into white adipose tissue (stored fat) to get them away from key organs involved with metabolism and health. Research on fat samples from across the country shows that all Americans have highly toxic chemicals stored in their fat. Unfortunately, such toxins damage white adipose tissue function, which directly interferes with leptin function and your ability to break down stored fat.
In fact, when you do break down toxic fat, those chemicals go back into your blood and run the risk of inflaming your brain, thyroid gland, and liver cells – making it more likely that your thyroid will crash from toxic exposure induced by weight loss. When this happens your muscles will feel tired, you will feel quite irritable, and you will be stuck at what I call a “toxic weight loss plateau.”
This is the point most people start eating again, as the toxins that are causing the problem can now be bound up in the calories of the extra food and removed from circulation (sent back to fat storage). On the one hand you feel better, until you look at the scale.
In the simple case, extra soluble fiber is the key to boosting toxin removal while enhancing leptin and insulin function. Soluble fiber helps to bind and remove the fat-soluble toxins that are coming through in your bile. Soluble fiber also helps calm down your appetite. See my article on Fiber, Leptin, and Weight Loss for more information. Fiber Helper™ and LeptiFiber™ are good supplemental fiber choices. Friendly flora like Super Dophilus also helps keep your digestive tract in balance for proper detoxification. A lack of friendly flora is linked to obesity.*
In addition to Daily Balancer™, high quality chlorella is another nutrient that can help bind fat-soluble toxic waste. And the nutrient arabinogalactan can help move lymph stagnation (excess mucous, shoulder stiffness, etc.). For a more comprehensive understanding of your body’s detoxification and plumbing systems see my Detoxification Health Topic page.*
To maintain smooth running of your thyroid and leptin systems it is vital to have adequate detoxification capacity so that your plumbing systems are up to the challenge of not only dealing with any current toxin-related issues – but can also handle the invariable increase in toxicity that comes about from toxins stored in fat that are released as you lose weight.
Your Complex Hypothalamus Gland
Once you understand simple-case thyroid and leptin issues, and detoxification challenges the next step in understanding thyroid and leptin problems is to get a basic understanding of the far more complex interactions that take part in your subconscious brain—in particular in your subconscious command and control center called the hypothalamus gland. No simple explanation is possible, as this is not a simple gland.
This is where multiple sensory input signals converge, coordinating internal physiological and thyroid status, food intake and need, emotional stress, and many other factors to arrive at output signals that directly set thyroid hormone function for your body. Leptin is the key hormone that guides all of this. Leptin tries to understand your hunger signals as well as your stress-related demands, and then integrate this information into a thyroid status that will assist your survival.
Too much stress, too much inflammation, poor physical fitness, a chronic health condition, overeating, and snacking between meals are key factors that confuse leptin and make its job much more difficult. This is so much the case that just about anyone who has difficulty attaining and maintaining an optimal body weight has a thyroid system in distress that is actually caused by an underlying leptin problem. The problems stem from faulty perceptions within your hypothalamus gland. Thyroid problems mostly respond to this underlying stress.
Yes, a person can have thyroid problems for other reasons and not be overweight. However, if you are overweight, by virtue of new knowledge about what is actually going on in your brain, leptin problems are causing thyroid malfunction regardless of what any lab test says.
In fact, understanding and learning to tame your symptoms is far more important than any thyroid lab score number on a piece of paper. For example, one signal that directly feeds into the leptin-thyroid axis is called ghrelin – a hunger signal that comes from your stomach. Ghrelin stimulates two other hunger signals in your subconscious brain, agouti-related protein and neuropeptide Y. These signals are synergistic opposites to leptin getting into your brain correctly and to proper metabolic activation, including optimal thyroid hormone production. This means that a simple symptom – being hungry too much, is a clear cut sign of a thyroid problem. This has been proven; elevated ghrelin directly predicts thyroid problems. You don’t need a fancy test, you just need to understand the symptom – too much hunger.
Here’s another simple symptom: the desire for carbohydrates. We know for a fact that this desire involves a ghrelin and neuropeptide Y signal. To an extent this is perfectly normal; it fuels appetite and desire to eat so that you can survive. However, this signal is supposed to turn off, it’s not supposed to be there all the time. Thus, when you crave sweet foods or carbohydrates too often, we know once again that leptin is not getting into your brain correctly and your thyroid system is not functioning up to par.
Take another common symptom – the desire for fat and salt. Once again, in moderation these desires are perfectly normal and feed dopamine-related pleasure sensors, which also provide input to the core leptin-thyroid circuitry. However, if you are constantly craving fat and salt and eating too much so that you gain weight or are overweight, then by definition you have a leptin and thyroid problem.
Under stress, the first desire is to eat something sweet like chocolate, to help cool off your system. If stress is really intense and your adrenals are crashing, you will crave a lot of fat and salt to feel better. Oprah Winfrey “solves” this urge by eating whole bags of potato chips or corn chips, as do many others. Such eating is a quick fix for the acute brain imbalance and adrenal crash. However, thyroid hormones are adjusted more gradually over the course of a week. The extra calories actually fuel leptin resistance, which then induce sluggish thyroid, making it even more difficult to metabolize extra calories when stress eating is a routine issue. Through this mechanism alone stress eating induces leptin and thyroid problems.
Stress eating is even worse when it is accompanied by insomnia, anxiety, excessive agitation, and an internal “wound up” feeling. This means the arousal thermostat is now set too high in your hypothalamus, a problem driven by a certain type of nerves called hypocretins. These signals are core to pleasure seeking, which directly leads to excess food consumption or some other addictive “solution” in order to feel better.
This is Oprah’s problem, as I explain in my feature length article, Oprah’s Thyroid Problem Explained.
Hypocretins are best friends with ghrelin, agouti-related protein, and neuropeptide Y, meaning that cravings for food run wild. Excess hypocretin activity in your brain reduces correct leptin communication to the TRH-producing neurons, triggering poor thyroid function. It also creates a mixed set of symptoms, some mimicking hypothyroid and others hyperthyroid, which is actually hypocretin excess. Underneath this problem is too much stress and inflammation.
Solutions involve nutrients that help offset stress, reduce inflammation, and calm nerves, as well as nutrients that help optimize leptin, insulin, and thyroid function. Toxin clearing support may also be needed, depending on the individual. Yes, this can get a bit complicated and need some individualized tweaking to get pointed in the right direction. At least there is a known path out of this morass, which improves thyroid function while helping solve issues that are at the core of the problem.
The Leptin Control Pack® is a combination of various supplements I designed, in part, to deal with leptin balance in your hypothalamus gland.* This collection of nutrients helps address multiple issues relating to inflammation, thyroid, leptin, insulin, blood sugar, triglycerides, stress, fluid retention, and cravings. The pack contains seven capsules: Leptinal® (enhances leptin function), Thyroid Helper® (enhances thyroid hormone activation to T3), Stress Helper® (boosts stress tolerance), LeptiSlim® (smooths out insulin, cuts cravings), Cinnamon Plus™(smoothes out insulin, helps liver regulate blood sugar), Green Tea Extract™ (antioxidant), and Quercetin. While this collection of nutrients tends to make weight management easier for just about anyone, the need is more important the more complex the weight loss issue.*
If a person is also coping with very high stress (emotional and/or physical demands), has a short fuse or is prone to feeling anxious, and has trouble sleeping, then nutrients to calm down hypocretins may be essential. In essence, such a person actually has to feel more relaxed before normal energy and thyroid-related metabolism can get in gear. The best supplements for this are Sleep Helper™, which can also be taken during the day, RelaxaMag™, Quercetin, and Calcium AEP.
Thyroid and leptin problems come in different sizes and shapes, ranging from the relatively simple to the very chronic and complex. Many people resolve even seemingly stubborn problems by starting with the simple solutions and applying them consistently.
Stress, sleep problems, toxins, digestive problems, and other health issues may weigh heavily on the thyroid-leptin system, making weight loss quite difficult. This results in complex thyroid-leptin issues that are rooted in confused and imbalanced nerve signals within your hypothalamus gland. This typically results in a mix of hyperthyroid and hypothyroid symptoms – though the actual problem is in leptin regulation of nerves. Additional nutrient support is often helpful to calm down these more complex issues and help get metabolism back on track.
Whenever weight issues are improved in a healthy and consistent way, thyroid hormone function is also improved. This information opens the door for many individuals to solve even long-standing metabolic problems. There is no short cut – but there is a path to follow.
Originally published 01-14-2009.
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