Trying to be healthy without understanding hormones makes a hard job harder. This article explains the basics of the endocrine (hormonal) system with an emphasis on how to eat to avoid being overweight. This simplified overview of a complex subject is meant to give you a chance at eating to influence your hormones in your favor.
Our body’s hormones dictate what our organs and tissues do
Imagine hormones as chemical messages flying around the body through the blood getting the different tissues to act together to produce what is needed. Hormones also are steering the organism’s overall structure and behavior as seen in puberty, sexual arousal and menopause. For better or worse our present bodies are the result of this hormonal steering.
The other major system sending messages throughout the body is the nervous system.The endocrine system is a general broadcast system, like a radio message. The nervous system is a direct specific messaging system, like a phone call. Think of an adrenaline rush versus blinking. The nervous and endocrine systems work closely together for the organism’s survival.
Hormones are made and secreted into the blood from glands such as the thyroid gland or the pancreas. The hormones land on receptors made just for them on the target cell and “flip genetic switches.” Each cell is like a little factory producing proteins. There are about 200 cell types: skin cells, liver cells, muscle cells, etc. Hormones dictate not only the proteins produced but the rate energy is burned to produce them.
Hormones are similar to the communications flowing between departments in a factory producing automobiles. Instead of “We’ll need 1600 tires by noon”, it is insulin telling muscle cells “take in and store glucose”. Messing up the communications in either the body or the factory causes problems. Modern processed foods and modern day stresses are confusing our endocrine systems and making problems with our weight and metabolism.
We have genes for different occasions
Our bodies evolved to survive and reproduce in a wide range of environments. We have genes that activate in response to, or anticipation of, starvation. We have genes that activate in response to great physical exertion such as fleeing predators or fighting other humans over territory. We have genetic programs for an abundance of food, for being sleep deprived and on and on.
We have genes for about every situation except modern food and modern stress. We’ll cover that shortly.
If we are lean, energetic and not craving food our body is nutritionally satisfied. It is burning calories quickly, wants to be thin and able to flee predators. It is running the thin genetic program.
If we are fat, lethargic and craving food our body is not nutritionally satisfied. Our body wants us to keep eating and not move much. It is running the fat genetic program. It may think winter is coming. It may think there’s not much around nutritionally (dieting) so don’t waste energy looking. Who knows what bodies think.
We can have parts of both the fat and thin programs or parts of other programs running all at once. Our hormonal profiles get complicated because we are in genetically ancient bodies, with minds filled with diverse memories handling modern stresses while eating diets of “Frankenfoods.” Little wonder we get fat—it used to be the safe thing for a body to do.
So depending on the genetic program running different hormones (there are about 50 kinds) enter the bloodstream. These hormones specifically attach to some of our bodies 200 different cell types. The various cells make their proteins until the required quantities of these products are detected. Then other hormones stop further production.
Some hormones push the gas pedal and others push the brakes to regulate the production of proteins.
For example, after we eat our blood sugar rises and the pancreas brakes the rise by releasing insulin. Eventually our blood sugar drops and the pancreas releases more and more glucagon to raise our blood sugar. Insulin puts the brakes on glucose being in the blood, glucagon accelerates the rise of glucose in the blood.
Sensors. Sensors, sensors everywhere
Millions of years of evolution engineered our bodies to detect, obtain and digest the food available in our environment. The nervous, muscular, digestive and endocrine (hormonal) systems in particular work together to deliver nutrients to our cells.
The nervous system has evolved sensors (like taste and smelling) that automatically detect and get us to seek food externally. We sense sweet stuff as yummy and putrid stuff as yukky and consume accordingly. Buzzards on the other hand sense and seek putrid.
Internally, it gets interesting. For example, stomachs have sensors for protein to know how much acid to secrete. Our gut releases the proper digestive enzymes based on its sensors detecting lipids (fats and oils) and carbohydrates of all sorts. There are sensors for glucose from one end of our digestive tract to the other.
While we are eating, our bodies quickly sense the quality and quantity of the nutrients in the food. The system assesses things like calories, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. Each meal is checked for nutrients and gets a tailor-made chemical bath to extract them.
Before eating, the body already “knows” what nutrients it is short on and uses cravings to steer us towards food with those nutrients. For example, when stressed we need extra energy so we crave and seek greasy, and/or sugary food. We “feel like” having a steak, chocolate or a salad (really) based on cravings.
We need to know about these sensors so when we crave we give them what they really want evolutionarily. Protein and plant material (fruit or veg) will (sooner or later) satisfy us nutritionally. We may reach for handy processed food but it wasn’t around to satisfy us when our genes evolved and has few nutrients.
The relationship between hormones, food and the brain’s reward center
Our brains have a pleasure center that lights up when something good for survival is eaten. High energy food, like honey, is greatly valued by the body because it spends relatively few calories in exchange for many. Our body can store the extra energy as fat for use in lean times like winter or to recover from injuries.
Actions like eating honey aid survival so are rewarded with a pleasant feeling. The reward molecules like dopamine are released by the brain to causes that pleasurable feeling. Flour, sugar, and cocaine also trigger the release of dopamine.
We evolved to remember the location and quality of nutrients in our environment and naturally head there when we need to.This ability to remember locations has to be one of evolution’s better achievements. This makes us wired to seek what’s handy to release dopamine like processed food.
Working together, our digestive, endocrine and nervous systems direct us do what it takes to obtain the nutrients the body needs. If that means eating low nutrient food (like processed food) for hours—so be it. We evolved to hunt, gather and eat all day if need be. We also come by eating traits like gorging (like at Thanksgiving) evolutionarily because food used to show up sporadically.
Our body systems evolved before today’s food showed up
So our organ systems were set up when man was eating like a chimpanzee. About 11,000 years ago the development of agriculture gave us high energy food like grains, potatoes and animal products. This “short” amount of time (11,000 years) allowed for only minor changes to evolve in our bodies.
The World Wars of last century saw the birth of food processing factories. They were needed to make rations for the troops and kept in use afterwards. Today our diets are about 70% processed food. Our bodies had never seen these types of foods before but its made to make the best of what its fed. Those that couldn’t eat new foods didn’t reproduce as well as those who could.
Our messed up food is messing us up
The first problem with processed food is that the nutritious parts are gone, mainly because those parts rot. An example is the outside part of a wheat or rice seed will spoil -but that’s where the vitamins are. The body is looking for the nutrients it needs and stops eating when our nutritional needs are covered (using hormones). Real food is a package of lots of compounds, processed food is mainly simple carbohydrates. Think of broccoli vs bread.
The second problem is that processed food is full of high energy sugar, flour, and fat (or oil) molecules. These molecules light up our pleasure centers and soon we are addicted. We crave, seek, eat and repeat.
Our ancient endocrine systems are confused by modern processed foods. The brain is giving the “go eat more” signal from the pleasure center because of the high energy content. The body is giving the “keep eating” signal because of the low nutrition. We overeat. (Here’s the reason why… and what to do about it.)
Processed food is food in name only
Food in its natural form has been nourishing our bodies for millions of years. Our gut lining and bacteria evolved to handle plant material, insects and animals. The new high energy, low nutrient “foods” like cookies, potato chips, pasta, pastries etc. change our gut flora drastically, perhaps permanently.
Bacteria that normally would not be present in our gut or in small amounts flourish on processed food and their presence make our guts “leaky”. Food proteins, preservatives and additives get into our blood and causes inflammation of other systems like circulatory (arteries) and nervous system (brain). This is covered in my inflammation article.
Pure junk food is easy to spot, potato chips, cookies etc. Other American staples like macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese, cereal, etc. seem like real food but are high energy, low nutrient food—i.e. processed food.
Between real foods and processed foods are starchy foods
Starches are strings of sugar molecules. Plant examples from wheat flour are bread, pasta and pastries. Recognizable, i.e. not processed, starchy foods are rice, potatoes and corn. The farmers of old selected them for starch -not a food processor. Eating large amounts of these will hormonally mimic eating processed food. You probably want to limit these after eliminating or reducing processed foods.
Leptin—the satisfaction molecule
Leptin is the satiety hormone. Leptin makes us feel satisfied—full and content. It is a darling of a hormone because it shuts off our desire to eat. As we eat, sensors throughout our bodies detect when we have eaten enough nutrients and release leptin to stop us.
Eating 3 to 4 ounces of protein, like steak, goes a long way to starting the leptin flowing. Adding a double-handful of highly seasoned baked vegetables and a fruit usually adds enough fiber, vitamins, etc. to satisfy a person for 5 to 6 hours.
Importantly, mixing high energy, low nutrition food into an otherwise nutritious meal stops the leptin effect. Bummer, eh? A meal with a good amount of protein and vegetables is spoiled by lots of calories from simple carbs. The nutritious meal with lots of simple carbs (like bread and dessert) is less satisfying so we overeat, feel stuffed and sick.
Making your brain leptin-resistant (that’s bad)
Obese people have high levels of leptin. Their body fat is producing leptin that should stop them from overeating but their brains have become leptin-resistant. Luckily their brains can be reset by nutritious, not processed, food.
Fat releases hormones (like leptin) that confuse our body’s hormonal response. Losing belly fat will get it out of the equation and normal hormonal responses will resume. Fructose from sugar also makes us leptin resistant. Fructose is found in fruit so comes with a load of fiber in nature. The saying is the poison (fructose) comes with an antidote (the fiber).
Belly fat, besides putting out confusing hormones, is inflammatory to our systems. Inflammation is associated with our most fatal affliction: cardiovascular disease. I mention this as further motivation to lose extra weight.
Ghrelin—the hunger hormone
Ghrelin is the hunger hormone made by the stomach to give us “true hunger.” There is also an “artificial hunger” or “toxic hunger” we feel from withdrawal from simple carbohydrates.
Waiting 5 or 6 hours between meals allows our blood glucose to be used up. This turns on ghrelin production and we eat. Hunger was a constant driver of our behavior as we evolved and it’s important to let our bodies cycle so they feel “normal” about food.
Ghrelin heightens our sense of smell and taste, it is called an orexigen. Tasting amazing flavors and smelling wonderful smells is a benefit of breaking an addiction to simple carbs. I can now smell sugar at the end of a Walmart aisle. Bananas and apples taste amazing—let alone oranges.
It takes a lot of motivation to stay off processed food and not spoiling your taster is a good one.
Insulin—the storage molecule
Insulin is the storage molecule, it allows nutrients to enter cells and leave the bloodstream. As a meal is digested nutrients enter the bloodstream: glucose from the carbohydrates, amino acids from the proteins and lipids from the oils and fat. The pancreas senses the nutrients and releases insulin into the bloodstream accordingly. The cells the insulin attaches to can then take in nutrients.
For hormonal health we are concerned with insulin and its effect on glucose storage. Most people know high levels of blood glucose damages capillaries and the nearby cells. Untreated diabetes can cause blindness, kidney damage, amputation of fingers, toes, etc.
Simply put, insulin causes the liver and muscle cells to take in glucose. These cells string the glucose together to form glycogen molecules. Glycogen is an animal storage starch that is broken down when glucose levels fall low enough. The hormone that turns the glycogen back into glucose is glucagon.
Eating a lot of high energy, low nutrient food overwhelms the liver and muscles’ glucose storage ability and some glucose remains in the blood. The liver makes the extra into a type of fat called a triglyceride. Triglycerides in the blood with glucose blocks leptin’s satiation effect and the person keeps eating. A lot of Oreos and ice cream can go down this way.
Leptin resistance and insulin resistance combined
Continued eating of high energy, low nutrient food eventually doesn’t get the same hormonal response. The brain becomes leptin resistant. This is bad because the person overeats looking for satisfaction. After a while, the muscle and liver cells become insulin resistant which is a symptom of type 2 diabetes. So leptin resistance goes hand in hand with insulin resistance and diabetes.
Dopamine versus leptin—who are you going to eat for?
Every bite of processed food is working against you—hormonally. Every bite of protein and fat is better than flour and sugar—hormonally. It takes time to get off the white stuff but once the “toxic hunger” goes away (a couple weeks), life is better—foodwise. Quit and keep on quitting simple carbs is the way to avoid diabesity (diabetes caused by obesity).
Cortisol—the stress hormone
Cortisol is a stress hormone from the adrenal glands. What stresses did we have as we evolved? It was stressful to have to bully fellow clan members and have them bully us to establish a hierarchy for food and sex. It was stressful to have the clan next door trying to kill us or steal us or drive us from our territory. The daily hunger was stressful, the walking miles every day was stressful, as was being hunted for food.
We released a lot of cortisol as we evolved these bodies in a dog eat dog world. Nowadays traffic, coworkers, employers, work, politicians, etc. stress us out. When stressed we seek greasy, salty, and/or sugary food in response to cortisol. I discuss this in more detail in my stress article.
High cortisol levels raise blood sugar, causes insulin resistance and increases belly fat.
The handling of stress has to be addressed for weight control—we need to have a strategy to prevent a cortisol-induced binge. Getting plenty of sleep is important to handle stress and prevent overeating.
By far the simplest stress handler is exercise. Running like a predator is after you will kick the “thin” genetic program in and you will not feel like eating. So running as fast as possible for say a minute at a time several times a day is the idea. The same goes for weights—pumping iron quickly to fatigue the muscles will mimic climbing away from predators in trees.
An exercise regime should include stressing and flexing the joint ligaments and tendons to stimulate blood flow. Yoga developed to handle or tolerate stress and prevent joint problems.
Eating to manipulate your hormones
It makes sense there would be more hormones to get us to eat than to stop eating. Eating and survival go together. Mother Nature says, “When in doubt, eat.” The main hormones that get us to eat are ghrelin, dopamine, and cortisol. These hormones push the gas pedal to eat.
Leptin puts the brakes on eating.
Triglycerides and glucose might as well be gas pedals as they stop leptin from stopping us from eating. Remember, we get those two from eating processed food. We get dopamine from processed food.
Simply keep your eye on the protein and eat your fruits and vegetables
To start with, in order to release leptin our meals should have a good dose of protein—about 4 ounces. When in doubt, craving or stressed, eat more protein. By covering the rest of the plate with vegetables (some cooked in good oil) and eating some fruit, all nutrients will be covered.
After eating this protein and plant material the body will sense it has a good dose of amino acids, fiber, minerals, etc., be satiated, and release leptin. The leptin will put the brakes on your appetite and you will automatically stop eating because you are satisfied. If you are leptin resistant this may take a while.
After 5 or 6 hours, ghrelin will be released and will enhance your senses of taste and smell. The added sensory impact will make the next meal more fulfilling, making leptin release easier. Repeat this protein, fat, vegetable and fruit dosing sooner if you are craving.
Staying off the gas and knowing where the brakes are
The most important thing is to avoid processed food. Just keep packing in the nutrients, especially protein, until your body says enough is enough. Eating fruits and vegetables feeds the gut a steady, reliable stock of fiber that nourishes the good bacteria (they maintain the gut lining) and gives the gut muscles something to grip (no constipation).
Sleeping and exercising as much as possible will help keep the cortisol levels down. If you do get stressed or hungry simply eat your meal early or a have a dose of protein—hopefully with a veg or fruit. In a while, the benefits of eating with your hormones in mind should encourage you to do more research that will let you tweak it to your liking.