Hunger Hormones and Diabetes

The more I research diabetes, specifically type 2; I’ve learned that it encompasses more than just high blood sugars and the hormone insulin.

Sure, those two areas are the most widely recognized in the subject of diabetes in general but for those of us concerned with breaking down how type 2 diabetes works and manifests itself in the human body, the hunger hormones cannot be ignored.

They play a critical role in how we got to a type 2 diabetes status. These hunger hormones I refer to are leptin and ghrelin.

These work in tandem to maintain our body’s energy homeostasis or stability. There are other less significant hunger hormones than these two that also play a role but for simplicity’s sake, I will focus on leptin and ghrelin only.

My goal with this post is to give you a general understanding of how these two hormones affect one’s hunger and also to give you the bigger picture of how they interrelate with other factors from a diabetes perspective.

It’s certainly all connected.


Leptin is what I like to call the “hey, I’m full so stop eating” hormone. That is the signal that our brain, specifically the hypothalamus, generates when it detects this hormone.

Essentially, it is a regulator of appetite, fat stores, and energy expenditure among other things. Only recently identified in 1994, there have been over 26,000 studies published since, apparently. That’s how critical this hormone has become in the area of obesity and related subjects.

Where does leptin come from?

It’s produced by body fat tissue in direct proportion to the size of the tissue itself. In other words, more fat equals more leptin. These fat cells act like an endocrine gland; they release hormones.

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Not only that, fat cells also release inflammatory chemicals into the blood stream. Our fat cells are not inert substances taking up space, as it was once believed. As we eat and digest food our fat cells are loaded with fatty acids, which in turn produce leptin.

The hormone then travels in the bloodstream attached to proteins and makes its way to the hypothalamus in the brain. Upon arrival the signal to stop eating is generated. Under normal conditions that is exactly what happens; we stop eating.

Now that we ate what happens?

As we know, we are satiated for a few hours. At some point, we start to feel the effects of the hormone…


Not to be confused with the cute but destructive furry creature of 1980s movie fame, a Gremlin; ghrelin is often referred to as the hunger hormone.

It does exactly that, makes us hungry and influences certain behaviors as a result from that hunger.

Continuing where we left off with leptin, having eaten and been satisfied for a few hours, we start to feel hunger coming on. That’s ghrelin at work. It is secreted in the gastrointestinal tract particularly when it is empty.

Like leptin, ghrelin travels in the bloodstream to the hypothalamus in the brain. Unlike leptin, ghrelin sparks a “you’re hungry, go ahead and eat” signal from the brain.

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As you eat and the stomach becomes full, ghrelin ceases to be released as a result of the stomach expanding. As ghrelin stops, leptin starts and you stop eating.

In a nutshell, ghrelin makes you hungry and leptin makes you feel full. Obviously that is an oversimplified statement but that’s how it is, in essence.

Now, how does all this relate directly to type 2 diabetes? Let’s start with…

Leptin Resistance

In leptin resistance, there are high levels of the hormone. So much so, that the brain begins to ignore it, in reality it’s a disruption in normal signaling.

In other words, in a normal leptin signaling state, it causes a signal of fullness and we stop eating, But when we are in a leptin resistant state our brains don’t hear the signal and we continue to eat, accumulating more fat in the process.

That additional fat produces even more leptin in fat cells, which also will be ignored. We are now caught up in a self-perpetuating cycle, one we call leptin resistance. As part of this cycle, we are progressively eating more because we require more food to feel full.

We gain fat (weight) because it is insulin’s job to store away nutrients for future use. Our body is a marvelous survival machine! It is programmed to do this, survive!

The issue is, generally in modern society, we do not suffer from shortages of food. As you know it’s readily available with little effort. Yet, we still have this survival mechanism inside of us and we’re paying a huge price.

Leptin resistance is very much like insulin resistance; the underlying cause of type 2 diabetes. The body’s cells ignore insulin and glucose cannot enter the cell leading to high levels of glucose in the bloodstream.

In fact, leptin and insulin are undoubtedly linked in the whole obesity issue. And by extension, type 2 diabetes applies as well. Where there is insulin, leptin is sure to follow.

According the Dr. Ron Rosedale in his book The Rosedale Diet (one of my favorites) wrote, “If you are insulin resistant, you are almost always leptin resistant, and if you are leptin resistant, you are a sugar burner, not a fat burner. If you are not burning fat, you are storing fat and getting fat.”

This is not a stretch of the imagination once you learn about how hormones work, interact with and oppose each other and the physiological effects they have on our bodies.

Once you understand leptin and insulin, you’ll see you can’t have leptin resistance without the accompanying insulin to enable it. This leads to chronically high levels of insulin creating a state of resistance.

If you’re lucky, that insulin resistance will only lead to weight gain and give you that all too familiar apple or pear shape. But If you’re not so lucky like myself and 387 million others around the world, our genes flip a switch somewhere along the path to leptin and insulin resistance and hello TYPE 2 DIABETES!

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But back to leptin resistance, these are the causes according the neurobiologist Dr. Stephan Guyenet (explanations my own):

  1. High leptin levels: Obviously, right? When levels are high and kept there through diet, eventually and gradually the brain ignores it.
  2. Inflammation: As we disrupt biological processes and signaling the body responds with inflammation in an attempt to protect itself with consequences of course.
  3. Free fatty acids: These are essentially fat compounds released by the fat tissues and circulate in the bloodstream. These are now long believed to be harmful and certainly play a role in metabolic diseases.

Preventing Leptin Resistance

Whether you’re type 2 diabetic or not, it would behoove you to follow these guidelines to prevent, mitigate and reverse leptin resistance. See the next section for more type 2 diabetes specifics.

  1. Exercise – Everyone’s fav! Exercise, particularly resistance training like weights. HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training like P90X, T25, etc. No other activity burns fat quite like these.
  2. Cut down on carbohydrates – Of the macronutrients, it is the one that stimulates insulin secretion the most. Not only that, the overconsumption of carbs leads to higher levels of triglycerides in the blood.
  3. Sleep more – Studies have shown leptin is affected by sleep duration. More is better in terms of leptin.
  4. Avoid processed foods – This one we’ve all heard by now and I for one buy into it a 100%. Read the labels, they are full of not so healthy stuff.

For Type 2 Diabetics

Being a 20+ year type 2 diabetic and spending countless hours doing my own research and experimentation over the years, I have picked up a thing or two. I have one quick sentence for you to start this section


  1. Drastically cut the amount of carbs you eat per day.
  2. Avoid artificial and refined sugars. Read this: The Many Forms of Sugar
  3. Processed foods…. out the window!
  4. Eat more good fats
  5. Eat more protein
  6. Get started on Intermittent Fasting

I realize that list can be overwhelming especially if you were just diagnosed with diabetes or have just started learning more about health.

But if you take it one thing and one day at a time, it isn’t so bad.

Of course it is absolutely crucial to have the right information. In terms of type 2 diabetes, what information is widely made available to us is unfortunately flawed. What with the excessive carbohydrates we’re continually told to consume.


It is precisely the carb that raises blood sugar the most.

According to the International Diabetes Federation, 5 millions diabetics were diagnosed in 2014 alone!

Something is wrong and needs to change. This is why we must break familiar cycles and stop the insanity!