Hunger, on the surface, is pretty easy to understand. You get hungry after you’ve gone several hours without food, and the hunger goes away after you’ve eaten your fill.
Behind the scenes, though, is an intricate dance of hormones that are regulating your appetite, playing a pivotal role in determining when, what, and how much you eat.
Our minds often jump to emotions and mental health when the topic of hormones comes up, but hormones play a vital role in several physiological processes as well, especially sleep and appetite. Hunger hormones do their job by sending cues to the gut and brain that help us know when it’s time to eat. A simple daily thing, sure, but one that’s critical for our survival.
5 hormones that regulate appetite
Hormone regulation is affected by genetic factors, lifestyle, medical conditions, and changes in body weight. Several of our hormones play an important role in regulating our appetite. Some of them focus on regulating the short-term effects of appetite (such as avoiding overeating at dinner), while others play the long game to maintain normal amounts of energy stores in the body over time.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the main hormones that regulate appetite.
Often referred to as the “satiety hormone,” leptin is primarily produced by fat cells and serves as a communicator between the body’s energy stores and the brain. It signals to the brain that you’re full or to stop cravings, reducing your appetite.
Leptin is produced every time we eat. Those with greater body fat often have higher leptin levels, which can lead to leptin resistance, causing you to feel hungry even after you’ve eaten enough.
In many ways, ghrelin is the opposite of leptin. Known as the “hunger hormone,” ghrelin increases before meals, signaling to the brain to trigger hunger and encourage eating, and decreases after you’ve eaten. It also signals to the body to store fat and is partially responsible for those impossible-to-ignore stomach growls.
Irregular eating patterns or restrictive diets can disrupt the normal release of ghrelin, causing you to feel hungry more often. Higher levels of ghrelin can make it more difficult to lose weight because they tend to cause more food cravings.
Insulin’s primary role is to regulate blood sugar levels, which in turn affects appetite. Insulin levels rise after you eat, which helps suppress appetite by putting more glucose back into the cells for energy.
Too much insulin, though, can lead to insulin resistance. This occurs when the body’s blood sugar and insulin levels have been elevated over a long period of time and the cells start becoming resistant to the effects of insulin. And when the body can’t respond to insulin properly, you will likely feel hungry and thirsty more often, too.
If you’re like most people, you probably eat differently when you’re stressed. Cortisol, best known as the stress hormone, is produced in larger amounts when the body’s response to stress kicks in. This can increase hunger and intensify cravings for comfort foods—which are often high in sugar, salt, or fat.
Cortisol can also affect the regulation of leptin and ghrelin, which contributes to stress eating and changes in appetite.
Glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1)
GLP-1 is similar to leptin, helping to trigger satiety. It also slows digestion and movement of food through the digestive system, which helps you feel fuller for longer. This makes it easier to avoid snacking and overeating.
5 ways to support normal hormone levels
Normal hormone levels can go a long way in helping us manage weight and hunger, as well as feel better overall. Here are a few tips that support the body’s efforts to maintain normal hormone levels.
Fasting for at least 12 hours a day does more than give your digestion a break. It can also improve insulin sensitivity, decrease ghrelin levels, and help regulate leptin levels. Regardless of when, or how often, you eat, make sure you follow a consistent schedule, as this helps keep hormones working as they should.
Fill your meals and snacks with a variety of nutritious foods. This means plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean meats, and few ultra-processed foods. A healthy diet will ensure you’re getting the calories and nutrients you need, as well as help you keep hormone levels where they need to be to regulate appetite properly.
Aerobic activity can temporarily suppress hunger, as well as improve insulin sensitivity and overall hormone balance. Again, consistency will work in your favor. Regular exercise helps regulate your hormones and helps with weight management.
Never underestimate the power of being well rested. Poor sleep leads to higher levels of cortisol and ghrelin, and lower levels of leptin. Which means more time spent feeling hungry, especially at night, and probably more snacking. We all have our occasional bad nights, but do your best to get 7–9 hours of sleep regularly.
Stress can’t always be avoided, but it can be managed. It’s tempting to turn to food for comfort during difficult times, but there are more effective ways to keep stress at manageable levels. Deep breathing and exercise are good ways to lower cortisol, as well as spending time with loved ones or on hobbies you enjoy.
Hunger hormones work for, not against, you
A healthy lifestyle supports normal hormone levels so they can do their job, and in turn help us feel better. The oft-repeated adage “listen to your body” works best when your hormones are well balanced, so do what you can to live a healthy lifestyle—your body will thank you.