When Good Hormones Go Bad—the Sad Saga of Hungry and Full - Rhona Epstein

When Good Hormones Go Bad—the Sad Saga of Hungry and Full

You’re at your favorite restaurant and enjoyed a delicious meal of your favorite foods. Your plate is empty and your stomach is distended with fullness, but the server hands you the leather-bound dessert menu.

“I couldn’t,” you say.
“Are you sure,” the server asks.

Then the “tapes” play in your head—the familiar “voice” that takes you to the opposite place of health. It might say: Why not? I had a tough week. I deserve it. I’ll only take a few bites. On and on it plays, then ends with: I can make room; I’m not that full.

Later, as you prepare for bed, you’re feeling so uncomfortable with overeating it’s difficult to sleep. Recriminations and self-loathing keep you awake as much as the full tummy. The other tapes play in your head: You’re a failure. You’re weak.

You wonder yet again: Why can’t I have victory over my eating?

Your struggle with food—and in many cases with your weight—has a physiological process. For even the most diligent of dieters, there may be one or more saboteurs keeping you from success.

Hormones. Hormones can cause chemical reactions in the brain. Some reactions can take over the brain, just as with substance abuse and make it difficult for certain people to refrain from overeating.

Take our hormones ghrelin and leptin[1]. I call them hungry and full. While the names may not be familiar, you definitely know how they feel. These hormones are critical to the efficient fueling of our body. When they’re operating optimally, they alert us when we’re hungry, and then when we’re full. The function of ghrelin is to protect our body against starvation—they alert us that our stored resources are depleted. Leptins tell us we’re full and should stop eating.

What is interesting is that while these hormones are located in our body, they affect our brain (hypothalamus). Leptins are located primarily in fat cells, as well as the stomach, heart, and skeletal muscle. The ghrelin resides primarily in the lining of the stomach.

How do these good hormones go bad? Through crash dieting and yo-yo weight loss and gains. Crash dieting sends warnings to leptin that the body is being deprived of its normal intake of nutrition. Studies indicate that leptin levels will actually reduce by fifty percent after seven days of crash dieting.[2] Conversely, with prolonged dieting and yo-yo gains and losses, ghrelins will increase in number.

What does that mean to you? People with low levels of leptin and high levels of ghrelin may not get the signal to feel full. Their appetites don’t shut down. Their brains have become dull to the weakened leptin levels and amped up with the over-endowed ghrelins.

If you feel you’re always hungry, it may not be an issue of willpower. If our brain no longer recognizes the “voice” of the leptin and can only hear the “cries” of the ghrelin, what begins as a normal meal, can turn into an all-out binge. One cookie ends up being the whole bag. A cup of ice creams turns into a quart.

Add to these chemical reactions, if you are addicted to sugar or other types of foods, the brain can mimic the alcoholic or drug addict in some people: loss of control; cravings; denial (or lack of awareness) of the extent of the problems; preoccupation; shame; secretiveness. In fact, for some, it more than mimics, they are the same.[3]

Can identifying whether the problem is willpower or wiring really unlock freedom for you? Yes.

Ask yourself, do you:

  • exhibit tolerance? Do you need increased amounts of food to achieve a “sugar high” or have diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of food?
  • experience characteristic withdrawal syndrome for food (cravings) or do you substitute for food preoccupations with shopping, time spent on the internet and social media, or sex to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms?
  • often eat food in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended?
  • persistently desire or unsuccessfully try to cut down or control eating too much?
  • spend a great deal of time in activities necessary to obtain or use food?
  • give up social, occupational or recreational activities because of food use (weight/appearance/energy)?
  • continue the food use with the knowledge it can worsen a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of the above, then you may be struggling with hormonal and/or chemical reactions that are sabotaging your journey to health. Identification is the first step to healing. Knowledge and understanding are the next steps to success.

How does it begin? Being honest with yourself. Attend a food addictions’ 12-Step Program meeting (you can even attend by phone, see www.oa.org ). Find a counselor specializing in food addictions. It’s not about your promises or willpower, it’s about knowledge, support and faith.

You can begin that journey with hope that your challenges with weight loss or food addictions can be overcome.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Proverbs 9:10


[1] Precision Nutrition, “Leptin, ghrelin and weight loss—Here’s what the research says.” Helen Kollias.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Neurosciene & Biobehavioral Reviews 32, no. 1 (January 2008), “Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent Excessive Sugar Intake.” N. M. Avena, Pedro Rada, B. G. Hoebel.

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