Controlling the Hunger Hormone

July 28, 2016 Brigham and Women's Hospital

A young caucasian woman standing in front of the open refrigerator at late night, contemplating and wondering about a midnight snack in a domestic home kitchen. She is dressed in a bath robe hungry and looking for food. A symbol of dieting lifestyle. Photographed in vertical format.

Research has shown that ghrelin, also known as the hunger hormone, is impacted by sleep patterns and weight loss surgery.

Today’s post is contributed by Malcolm K. Robinson, MD, FACS, Director of the Nutrition Support Service at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), Laura Andromalos, MS, RD, LDN, Bariatric Nutrition Manager at BWH, and Hassan S. Dashti, PhD, a dietetic intern at BWH.

Have you ever thought about what makes you feel hungry or full? There are many signals in the body that help to control the amount of food we eat. Ghrelin, which is sometimes called the hunger hormone, is one of these signals.

Produced in the upper part of the stomach, ghrelin is a hormone that increases hunger. When the stomach is empty, ghrelin travels through the bloodstream and tells the brain to signal hunger. After eating, the stomach stops releasing ghrelin. Ghrelin levels change throughout the day. They are high just before eating a meal, letting you know that you are hungry, and low just after eating, letting you know that you are full.

When you eat less food through dieting, your ghrelin increases to high levels. This is your body’s attempt to make you eat more and slow weight loss. It also is part of the reason why people tend to feel hungrier during weight loss diets. On the other hand, overeating decreases ghrelin to lower levels, which results in less hunger, a sense of fullness, and less urge to eat. People with stable weights have fewer changes in their ghrelin levels and a more balanced sense of hunger and fullness throughout the day.

Research has shown that both sleep patterns and bariatric surgery* (weight loss surgery) impact ghrelin, too. Sleep-deprived adults tend to have higher ghrelin levels, more hunger, and less feeling of fullness compared to adults who get seven-to-nine hours of sleep. Bariatric surgery changes stomach and intestinal hormone levels, including ghrelin. This decrease in ghrelin levels after metabolic and bariatric surgery helps with short-term weight loss because patients feel less hungry.

*Bariatric surgery is generally available for patients with a body mass index of 40 or above; patients with a body mass index of 35 or above with two obesity-related disorders (such as diabetes, sleep apnea, heart disease, etc.); and patients who are more than 100 pounds overweight.

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