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.
  


           

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