If you have children you have probably have heard this a million times…. I’m HUNGRY!! Even right after a meal, like an hour later, they feel like they want something to eat. There’s a good chance that they are not really hungry, probably just bored. As for us adults the same may hold true, and there is also a good chance there are more reasons (kids included) that we feel like a snack is in order.
In our modern-day society, we do not know what true hunger is really like. With food everywhere, at arm’s reach within minutes, we can’t ever say that we are “going to starve to death” (even though the kids will tell you differently). Granted, you haven’t eaten in a few hours, your stomach is starting to rumble and the smell of the burger joint pumping out sliders is intoxicating, but you might not actually be truly hungry.
When it comes to true hunger, it’s a healthy hormonal response signal to the body that fuel is required to supply the system with energy. Pretty straight forward, IF we actually had a healthy hormone response, instead of a system that is not running at optimal levels. The main hormones that are responsible for our hunger are insulin, ghrelin, cortisol and leptin. All these players respond, act and react to stimulus and signals in whole or in part to maintain that ever precious homeostatic balance in the body.
Insulin – Master hormone – responsible for regulating various other hormones (sex, digestive, growth). Its main job is to balance blood sugar. High resting levels of insulin (insulin resistance) wreak havoc on the body and its system.
Cortisol – Stress hormone – Fuel mobilization for quick energy. Increases alertness and prepares body for immediate action (fight or flight). Over stimulation triggers hunger, typically for carbohydrates.
Leptin – Appetite hormone – Regulates appetite, satiety and fat metabolism. Made by the fat tissue, leptin tells the body how much fat to eat and how to process it. High carb/high insulin levels impair proper leptin signaling, signal ghrelin that causes an increase in hunger and fat storage.
Ghrelin – Hunger signaling hormone, influenced by leptin levels.
Here’s a situation to explain what typically goes on with our hormonal system in regards to hunger. The alarm goes off at 7 AM. Your body pumps a dose of cortisol (stress hormone) into the blood stream to prepare you for the day ahead (normal). You get up, grab a coffee with cream/sugar and a slice of toast with butter and jam and a glass of OJ because you heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Your insulin levels jump up to process the blood sugar from your meal (as it should) and you are well on your way.
As your day ramps up its 10 AM and coffee time! You feel a little hungry (elevated insulin, leptin is low so ghrelin signals you to eat) so you have a donut, yogurt and another coffee/cream/sugar. Couple hours fly by and it’s time for a 12:30 (late) lunch at the local pasta restaurant. Again, you feel the hunger pains (elevated insulin/leptin/ghrelin) and order the dinner sized baked lasagna with garlic cheese toast, Caesar salad and a coke. You scarf it all down quickly because you are running late and have to get back to the office for the 1:30 board meeting. Of course, you intended to have left-overs but you felt so hungry (leptin – high carbohydrate meal doesn’t signal satiety (eat too much) and cortisol spike – stress eating to meet deadline (eating too fast).
Now you feel a little tired right after, but as soon as you get back to the office you are perked right up (sugar high from lunch). After sitting in the meeting for an hour you start to fade. Your eyes start to close, your head nods and you are ready for a nap (that afternoon CRASH). It is now 3:30 PM and time for a coffee break. THANK GOODNESS!! Looks like an energy drink is in order to help wake you up (cortisol spike – higher blood sugar levels – insulin elevated).
So, you ride out the rest of your day on your caffeine and sugar high until you get home. You don’t eat because you decide to hit the gym and can’t workout with a full stomach. You know that you need exercise to stay fit and healthy so you push it a little bit harder today. One hour of cardio on the elliptical and 45 minutes of high rep weights (burn those calories) and you are absolutely spent!! It’s now 8:30 PM and time for supper and you are HUNGRY (intense workout = elevated cortisol = hunger). You worked hard today so your supper reward is a Skip the Dishes delivered large loaded thick cheese stuffed crust pizza and two beers. Yummy! You don’t eat it all (don’t want to feel like a pig) but save a few pieces for breakfast tomorrow morning…………
Quite the scenario hey? It might be a slightly exaggerated situation, but it illustrates why someone may seem hungry more often than not. The chronic high carbohydrate/high insulin (insulin resistance) state messes with the natural signaling of the hunger hormones and results in wild blood sugar levels, increased appetite, fat gain, impaired immune function, mood swings, impaired thinking, fatigue, disease and illness.
In my next Spear blog post, I will share tips and ideas to help get your system “back on line” and get those hormones firing on all cylinders!!