Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Skinny on Fat Hormones

Let's talk about hormones baby!  Just you and me! 

Here you are, trying to lose the fat and you just can't seem to make it go away.  Now you have tried everything, right?  From workout videos, weird contraptions, to diet pills, and even slimy creams or sticky lotions.  By now, you have spent so much money on this fat, you could have paid for you both to take a luxury spa vacation.  And if you have to do one more crunch, sit-up, push-up, etc., you will go crazy and scream.  But it still is not coming off and losing the fat becomes your New Years Resolution....again!

So what is the deal?  Well, it is your hormones.  Yes, those chemicals running loose in your body telling it what to do with all the nutrients that pass the stomach.  You see, when you were younger, you did not feel like treating your body very well.  After all, washing down a hamburger and fries with a chocolate shake sounded like an awesome way to chill with the friends on a warm afternoon.  Hell, it still does, but now you get indigestion.  What you did not realize, however, was that your body sounded the alarms when you ate like that: the shopkeepers closed for business, warriors armed with chemicals gathered in the duodenum (the opening into the small intestine) bracing themselves for the attack, rescue crews repelled off of the organs shooting streams of hormones at the greasy mess you put down your gullet.  Then, when the dust settled and nothing was left, the body returned back to normal waiting until the next attack.

What happened though, is that throughout the years, these defenses fatigue and are slowly trained to take "short cuts" when fighting against the greasy, sugary, salty, and creamy invaders.   Your body slowly turned from an organized metropolis to a lazy town.  So let me throw some science into the metaphor to explain exactly what happened and why.

The human body starts life with a very efficient metabolism.   It breaks down mother's milk into the necessary molecules in order to be processed and synthesized for growth and development, amazingly with very little waste in the end.  Unfortunately, in most cases, synthetic versions of this milk are often fed to infants which often raise blood sugar levels, activates the release of hormone dispersion at the wrong times, and leaves a lot of waste at the end.  As the child grows, the development of the endocrine system (linked to the metabolism) is based off of what is eaten, how often it is eaten, and amount of healthy physical activity.  Thus, a child with a diet of vegetables and wild game will have a much more efficient metabolism than a child grown on french fries and video games.

When a young child is developing, the hormone leptin normally suppresses the appetite (along with a whole boring sequence of chemical reactions), and the child's hunger is stabilized.   Leptin is a good hormone, it signals the brain that it has had enough to eat.  As you might have guessed, the lower the levels of leptin (or the lack of receptors on the hyptothalmus) the more hungrier you are and the more food it takes to feel full.  In breast fed infants and toddlers, the satiety is well regulated and the leptin levels remain stable.  In formula fed infants, however, the satiety is not well stabilized and may actually become resistant to leptin over time (although there no "conclusive" evidence of this in humans and I don't think the formula companies want there to be).  Another twist to this story is when there is not enough leptin produced (due to nutrient deprivation), the body also habituates this cycle, so that levels of leptin remain low.  This is bad news for adults bouncing around on low-calorie, (low nutrient) deprivation diets, because leptin (probably not your friend at the moment anyway) is now leaving the building; and consequently, if you might have guessed, leaving you defenseless against a gremlin which is making you very hungry.

This gremlin (the hormone ghrelin) is making the growling noises in your stomach.  Actually, the growling is caused by churning gasses in fluids, but hopefully you get the metaphor.  Ghrelin is leptin's complimentary partner.  While leptin is the "stick-in-the-mud" friend who discourages you from jumping off the cliff, ghrelin is the exciting friend who hands you the parachute and winks before pushing you off.  Like leptin, it is a hormone produced in the stomach by adipose tissue and linked to nutrient/energy intake.  Ghrelin is responsible for many functions such as triggering hunger, desensitizing the stomach walls, and establishing mesolimbic (brain's) responses to rewards.   While breast fed infants and toddlers learn how and when to eat according to hormone responses, formula fed infants often rely on visual/odoriferous food cues to eat.  As children grow up, ghrelin production and stability is often destroyed due to constant overeating, food rewards, and deprivation as punishments.  Often, addictions are formed early in life when rewards are given.  A classic example is when it is mandatory to clean your plate before you get dessert.  When this is repeated, ghrelin not only allows the stomach to expand past it normal capacity, but it also allows you to consume way more then what you would have; plus it stimulates action-reward response (increasing dopamine levels in the brain).  Later in life, these certain "reward" foods can trigger the release of dopamine and become habit forming.  Interestingly, ghrelin increases when stress increases, and so does the cravings for the reward foods.                          
As adults, we are well aware of stress.  Monday morning rolls around and our stress levels go through the roof.  With this, cortisol is produced.  Cortisol  is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland and is primarily the fight or flight hormone.  It increases blood sugar; metabolizes fat, proteins and carbohydrates; and suppresses the immune system.  During adolescence, the body adapts to increasing amounts of stress.  Healthy children develop coping mechanisms and establish rewarding methods of relieving copious amounts of stress.  In some cases, children are unable to develop coping mechanisms or learn appropriate skills for dealing with stress.  As the amount of stress increases, so does the amount of cortisol.  Without coping mechanisms, cortisol levels do not decrease normally.  In large amounts and long durations, cortisol is actually a dangerous hormone since it decreases bone production, increases insulin resistance, reduces collagen production, damages the hippocampus, depletes sodium and water levels, and reduces nutrient diffusion into the cells.  In the long term, cortisol increases appetite while telling the body that it needs to store fat in the abdomen and overrides insulin.

Insulin is a very important hormone.  It is secreted by the pancreas and is vital for fat and carbohydrate metabolism.  When something goes wrong with insulin production or its receptors, the body goes absolutely haywire.  Many different diseases share the root cause of unbalanced insulin, including diabetes mellitus (1 & 2), different metabolic syndromes, and other types of syndromes such as PCOS.  The pancreas releases insulin to help with the synthesis of proteins and glucose, and without going into a bunch of scientific terminology, it directs the nutrients to where they need to go.  When too much glucose enters the bloodstream, insulin directs glucose into storage cells.  Over time, those who have diets high in glucose may fatigue insulin receptors, thus causing diabetes II.  A diet high in glucose may also contribute to increased abdominal fat, hypoglycemia, high triglyceride levels, and the decrease of lipolysis (fat metabolism).

Now that you are armed with this information, you can take steps to erase years of abuse your body has tolerated.  First, it is important to start eating.  The body needs nutrients to function properly.  Taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement may be beneficial.  Balancing each meal will help restore hormone homeostasis.  Each meal should contain 2 - 3 servings of plants, 1 - 2 servings of proteins, and 1 - 2  servings of whole grains.  Herbal supplements also may be beneficial for anti-oxidant health.  Eating 4 or 5 times per day levels out blood sugar levels.  Limit high amounts of sugar and fats.

Secondly, I must include how important it is to get 8 hours of good sleep.  Seven hours is okay but eight or nine hours is great.  Sleep reduces cortisol levels and promotes hormone regulation through our circadian rhythm.  Moreover, establish routines. Eating, sleeping, and other functions on a routine creates regularity and decreases the need for the body to go in survival mode.  What also helps reduce stress is light exercise and meditation.  I recommend everyone take about an hour to do either yoga, Pilates, or stretch, then meditate afterwords.  If meditating is too difficult to do, either reading a book, needlework, or another relaxing hobby (away from TV or Computer) is great for stimulating hormone homeostasis.

Lastly, exercising is very important to promoting hormone balance.  Light to moderate cardio for 15 - 20 minutes everyday at the same time (mornings before breakfast are best) will tell the body that it is time to burn the fat in order to create energy.  A cardio workout may be as simple as taking the dogs for a walk, or hitting the gym.  I also usually recommend impact exercise to promote bone health.  This does not improve hormone homeostasis, however it helps restore bone health and reverses what years of cortisol damage has done.  Impact exercise include jumping jacks, stair running, jogging, free weights, jumping rope, punching bags, kick boxing, or martial arts.  The purpose is to lightly stress the bones and surrounding skeletal muscles in short bursts to strengthen and tone them.  Weak bones break easily and weak skeletal muscles do not support proper movement and impede structural integrity (stressing joints and ligaments leading to hyper-extensions and serious injuries).   Just 10 minutes per day can greatly improve bone health.

Even though hormones may be the reason why you can not lose the fat, there is no reason why you cannot fight the hormones.  It takes about three weeks to regulate and stabilize the hormones, perhaps a little longer depending on age, health, and body fat percentage.  Once regulated, however, you should feel more energy and experience less cravings than before.  The fat should melt off and clothes should fit better.  Most importantly, though, you will be able to teach others about what you have learned here and hopefully make a difference in somebody's life like I made in yours.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Losing Weight, Not Calories

"I am going to lose weight" I posted on Facebook.  Almost immediately, I had gotten several responses on Calorie Reduction.  Here we go again, 'Calorie Reduction', burning more than you take in.  But does that really burn unwanted fat and leave a lean, sculpted physique in its place?  When a person says, "I want to lose weight," and they often do nowadays, what does that really mean...physiologically....biologically.....socially...?  To me, "losing weight" it is ubiquitous with losing only body fat, and then leaving toned muscles behind.  But then, in a conversation with a friend of mine, the fat is not so much the problem as the body shape itself, thus her ideal 'weight loss' is losing inches around the mid-section.  In other similar conversations with another friend of mine, his goal is to actually gain weight, and by this I took to mean muscle mass since jiggly fat is not desirable in our vein culture.  Still, for some, I tend to find that they truly mean 'weight loss', as in dropping pounds, leaving alone the body composition conundrum most of the American population tend to ignore anyways.  Then, there lies the question if starvation really leads to the weight loss goals most of us wish for (whatever the meaning is subjectively), regardless of what type of weight is actually lost.  Ergo, what does "Calorie Reduction" actually do for the body?
Let us look at the typical diet, not what the CDC recommends because I find it quite silly, but what the average American actually consumes daily.  I am just going off of what I have observed from my vast array of eclectic kin folk, however, I strongly recommend you observe your kith and kin too since cultural and societal differences may change cuisine preferences.  I have one friend who consumes about four carbonated sodas per day, stops mostly for fast food, and may consume anywhere from 2700 calories to 3400 calories per day (yet remains slim and gorgeous if you were curious).  I have several friends who tend to consume only junk food with limited nutrients, two are very slim, one is not.  Most of my friends who eat fast food more than once per day are substantially bigger than they should be.  A couple of my friends who consume pre-made frozen meals twice a day are quite thin, but frail.  I have another friend who primarily consumes her mom's home cooking, but indulges in sweet treats afterwards and is quite big because of it.  A friend of mine has two sons with the same exact diet, yet one is morbidly obese and the other could become a kite in a slight breeze. Confused?  I am.  Reality defies theory.
To make it easier on myself, I compiled a short list of what all of my friends may eat typically.  Fast food: burgers, fries, tacos, burritos, nachos, breaded meats, and fried foods.  Italian food: lasagna, spaghetti, ravioli, other various pastas.  Mexican food: enchiladas, burritos, tacos, chili rellenos, chicken quasadillas, and other authentic dishes.  BBQ food: need we say more?  Junk food: cupcakes, doughnuts, chips, and various other packaged convenient foods.  Movies: Popcorn w/butter, candy, soda pop.  Beverages: soda pop (Coke & Pepsi), fake teas (Brisk, etc.), fruit punch, sports drinks, shakes, malts, and convenient store slushies.   
The high amount of calories consumed daily should, in theory, increase body fat.  However, some of my friends are extremely overweight, some of my friends are slightly overweight, some of my friends are normal, and some of my friends are borderline underweight, despite the consistency of the average diet.  Many of my friends who have kids feed them typical processed kid food, hotdogs, hamburgers, pizza, meals in a can, candy, etc.  The kids, however, vary in size and body composition.  Not surprisingly, weight issues of the parents are often reflected in the weight issues of their children.
Interestingly though, it was found that in fat rats (lab induced obese rats, of course, not your lazy boss), when their weight gain is purposely reduced, their food intake is comparable to that of their thin counterparts.  What does this mean?  Well, a fat rat can eat the same amount as a skinny rat and still be fat, even if it is less than what they ate to become fat.  This also suggests that caloric consumption is not the primary cause of obesity in all cases; more importantly, weight change itself is not dependent on energy exchange but on types of foods consumed (e.g. fats and sugars).  When fed a combination of fats and sugars, rats gained more body fat and increased plasma insulin levels than if they were fed either fats or sugars alone.  In humans, consumption of fats and sugars together is very common in processed foods.   Often baked goods and prepackaged meals have a high content of both fats and sugars together.  It is also common for people to drink a large sugary beverage with a high-fat meal, such as buttered popcorn and soda pop at the movies.   
Going back to the normal diet, different people consume different foods in conjunction with other types of foods.  At a movie theater, one may get a large soda pop with popcorn, another may decide on nachos and a water, yet another may get non-fat candy with soda pop.  Moreover, a person drinking two, three, or four sugary beverages per day may or may not have a lot of body fat, depending on their primary consumption of fats.  A link has been shown in obese people consuming a large amount of fat alone (more women than men in fact) in their normal diet, but no such definitive conclusions to large amounts of sugar intake.  Sugar is processed very differently than fats, and serve different as functions in the body.  Even more perplexing is the correlation between excess fat intake and the great amount of weight gain (overall) compared to excess carbohydrate intake and weight gain (which was considerably less) even though the calories remained the same in both groups.  And, since many of the meals we eat contain high amounts of addictive fats, carbohydrates, and sugars (regardless of calories), many of us have become considerably bigger than our ancestors only four decades ago.
Speaking of which, for decades, farmers have used these techniques to raise their livestock.  In farm animals, a high amount of carbohydrates, fats, and protein by-products are added to their feed in order to fatten them up quickly.  To speed up the process, injections of hormones increase their ability to gain more weight (often high fat to muscle ratio).  To keep them fat, farmers keep their livestock from moving around which promotes high amounts of adipose storage and loose muscle fibers.  Many culinary chefs prefer this marbling of meats over range-free (grass fed only meats) because of the product's tenderness. When livestock are unable to exercise, the metabolism becomes ineffective and the oxidation of fats (fat burning) is halted.  This combined with the surplus of hormones (the argument to whether the hormones we consume via this meat is healthy or not remains unresolved), the sedentary animal is forced to become obese very quickly.  Most animals raised for slaughter are fattened up for market in less than a year.  Cattle, swine, and poultry all are rotated quickly (yes even the sick and lame are slaughtered for consumption) to ensure the largest profit margin possible.  Fish, lamb, and the 'other' farm meats are often less industrialized, however can still exhibit signs of  synthetic fattening. 
Wrapping this all up can be tricky and I will try to make things simple to understand.  There is a lot of research I did not include for time's sake, but here is the jist of things: A)'losing weight' in and of itself is not as important as burning fat; B) decreasing caloric intake is not as important as reducing fat intake; C) avoiding meals with sugar and fat together is more effective than avoiding high-caloric foods; D) exercise after a high-fat meal increases the body's ability to burn the fat instead of storing it.  I always say, for best results, eat as naturally as possible.  Organic, whole, and fresh foods will also help you to lose weight; not so much losing pounds or inches, but body fat, which is what you really want in the end anyways.

Brownell, K, & Fairburn, C. (1995) Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Comprehensive Handbook. The Guilford Press, New York, New York.

Schlosser, E. (2002) Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, New York.