“Remember that old question ‘can you pinch an inch?’ I am WAY beyond that in my belly!” That’s what Darlene said to me during her consultation for my weight loss program. “I never used to have belly fat. What happened?” she asked.
Darlene’s story is SO familiar to me. And so is the frustration she was feeling. She had tried so many things to lose the body fat that had been slowly but steadily accumulating – especially around her midsection. She’d been on and off diets for years, but nothing seemed to help. She told me she was almost ready to give up.
I’m so glad she found me when she did! Too many women do give up, resigning themselves to life with a body that they don’t love. But it doesn’t have to be that way! And weight loss isn’t just about how you look, or even how you feel about yourself (though, of course, that’s very important).
Losing weight is critical to good health in so many ways. And good health is an important piece of the weight loss puzzle. That’s why it can be so tricky — you can’t have one without the other.
Many of the women I work with have imbalances of one kind or another that make losing weight nearly impossible without drastic changes to lifestyle and diet. But although the overall shift is necessary for long term success, you can’t start there!
The first step is always to identify what the actual problem might be. Why is someone’s body resisting weight loss? So many things can be behind a woman’s inability to maintain a healthy weight. And one hormonal imbalance that is often missed is leptin resistance.
You can’t change what you don’t know about – which is why it’s so important to know the possibilities. If you can identify leptin resistance as the culprit, you can take steps towards healing.
What is leptin resistance, anyway?
Leptin is a hormone responsible for letting your brain know that you are full. Can you see how it would be an issue if your brain never receives that signal? But that’s not all. Leptin also helps regulate metabolism, by sending the message to your body that burning off fat is okay.
So what happens when the wrong messages are getting through? Weight gain! Your brain says “keep on eating.” Your body says “hold tight to that fat – we need it so we won’t starve!” When the messages are so backwards, your body kicks into gear — doing exactly the opposite of what you truly need!
Leptin resistance is what we call those misread signals. Leptin can’t do what it’s meant to do.
The good news is that once you identify leptin resistance as a problem, you can change those signals so the right one gets through. So how do you know if leptin resistance is a problem for you? Let’s look at some clues your body may be sending. Then, I’ll give you some steps to help you begin to heal.
How does leptin work in the body?
Let’s back up a bit. For many of you, this may be the first you’ve ever heard of this hormone called leptin. It was discovered less than 30 years ago, which makes it a newcomer in the science world. That means there are no concrete answers on how it works…but we do have a lot of initial information. Let’s start there.
Leptin is produced in fat cells – so it makes sense that it’s connected to obesity! Once produced, leptin is released into the bloodstream where it travels to the brain. As I said before, it’s supposed to let the brain know that you have sufficient energy stored to carry on as usual metabolically.
Ironically, dieting could inadvertently be making the weight problem worse. That’s because when you diet, you eat less. And when you eat less, your body makes less leptin. So the brain might hear “danger, starvation is imminent!” and start storing energy as – you guessed it – fat. This continues until leptin levels rise and your brain gets the “stop eating” message again.
Here’s the big problem: sometimes, your leptin levels are just fine, and you have all the stored energy you need. But the signals your brain is getting tell you to eat everything in sight. Your body just isn’t responding the way it needs to to the leptin flowing through your bloodstream.
To complicate things further, leptin is also connected to the reward center in your brain. So if your levels are high enough, food is just not as appealing. But with leptin resistance, even when levels are sufficient, the reward system switch is stuck on. Food looks and tastes just as good as it did when you started eating…so you just keep going.
New research is pointing towards ways we might be able to increase the brain’s sensitivity to leptin. For example, a study found that inhibiting an enzyme known as HDAC6 (don’t worry, you don’t need to memorize this!) helped to decrease leptin resistance and body weight in obese mice within a matter of weeks. The change also led to improved metabolism, liver health, and glucose tolerance.
While we don’t yet know how these results will translate for humans, it’s another great indication of just how central leptin is to weight management.
Related article: Leptin Resistance and Weight Loss – A Losing Battle
How Do I Know If I Have Leptin Resistance?
Knowing about leptin resistance is step one. Step two is being able to identify when that’s what is happening in your body. As I said before, there are many imbalances that can lead to weight gain and difficulty losing weight. So those alone aren’t a clear indication of leptin resistance.
However, if you are at least 15 pounds outside a healthy weight range – in either direction, your body may not be responding properly to leptin. That’s right — being underweight can signal a problem with how your body responds to leptin as well. It makes sense to me; when your brain is getting mixed up messages, it can go either way!
If you find yourself eating constantly – or never eating – that’s another indication that you aren’t processing leptin correctly. Food cravings – especially for “junk” foods void of nutritional value – are a big sign that you may be experiencing leptin resistance.
If you can’t make it to your next meal without snacking, it’s fairly likely that you are leptin resistant. And if you’re going for long stretches of time without eating at all, you may be actually creating problems with leptin as it sends a frenzied signal to hold on to any fat it can at all costs.
If you’re constantly stressed and can’t sleep at night, you may also have leptin resistance. Stress increases cortisol levels, and chronically high levels of cortisol leads to more stress. It’s another cycle that becomes exceedingly difficult to break.
I’m sure this won’t come as a surprise to those who read my work regularly, but if you eat a “typical” diet filled with sugar, refined carbs, preservatives and chemicals you will almost certainly develop leptin resistance eventually.
These foods offer a quick burst of energy, followed by a crash, followed by more eating. It’s a roller coaster ride your body absolutely can’t manage forever. Your body will adapt with leptin resistance, and your brain will think you’re starving.
Testing can also help you identify whether you are experiencing leptin resistance. High levels of leptin in your blood are an indication that your body is overproducing leptin because your brain isn’t interpreting it’s signals correctly. Elevated markers of inflammation may also indicate an issue.
For some, there’s also a genetic component. My genetic testing showed me that I have a genetic predisposition towards leptin resistance. Knowing this helps me make better choices in what (and how) I’m eating. I know that even if I don’t feel full, I probably have had enough – so I rely more on measuring and portion control than feeling full.
Genetic testing is one great way to see if leptin resistance might be an issue for you. As an added bonus, genetic testing can tell you about a lot of other things that can make weight loss tough!
What can I do about leptin resistance?
If leptin resistance is a problem for you, you must take steps to address it if you want to lose weight. That means both increasing sensitivity to leptin, prompting your body to respond to appropriate leptin levels, and reducing excess production if you already have high levels of leptin in your bloodstream.
While there is no “easy” fix, there are many diet and lifestyle steps you can take to move things in the right direction. Try the following to get you started.
And the good news about these tips is that they’re likely to help you with weight loss resistance even if leptin resistance is not to blame– unlike more targeted pharmaceutical innovations, which may only work if your leptin levels are already elevated.
Balanced meals are key
Every meal should include fiber, protein and healthy fat to keep both insulin and leptin levels balanced. Start your day right with a breakfast that includes plenty of protein (eggs are a great choice) and healthy fat. You’ll feel satisfied and ready to tackle the day.
Ease up on sugar consumption
Sugar is problematic for health in myriad ways. As far as leptin goes, there is a theory that high sugar consumption can lead to high triglyceride levels, which prevents leptin from reaching your brain. Sugar is everywhere, so reducing how much you eat may not be as simple as you think. Start by reading labels and avoiding products with added sugar.
If you have a real sweet tooth, try fruit to satisfy those cravings; the natural fructose doesn’t cause the same problems unless you are going way overboard. The amino acid 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) can help stave off sugar cravings.
Say “no” to snacking
If you find yourself constantly perusing the kitchen for something to snack on, it’s time to recognize that you probably aren’t even hungry. Snacking is a habit that can be so hard to break – but if you have leptin resistance, it’s essential to do so! When you eat, leptin is released. So if you eat all the time, you produce leptin constantly, and your body learns to disregard it. You want your cells to respond to leptin, not ignore it!
At the same time, you don’t want to limit calories too much. Just eat them all at once instead of constantly throughout the day. Try intermittent fasting, where you go for at least 12 hours without eating. If you eat breakfast at 7 am, that means you’d stop eating by 7 pm. You can also try pushing your breakfast time a little later, especially if you tend to eat dinner on the later side.
Move more – but don’t go overboard
At least one animal study has linked exercise to increased leptin sensitivity. And there are many other good health reasons to increase your activity level. But stress of any kind can work against you as far as leptin goes, so you don’t want to jump into training for a marathon!
If you don’t exercise already, start with gentle stretching, yoga or walking. If you already work out a lot, consider changing your routine. Interval and resistance training are good alternatives to intense cardio workouts as you heal.
Sleep is essential to maintaining a healthy weight. If you are chronically sleep deprived, leptin levels may drop, prompting you to eat more when you awaken. You may even find yourself eating in the middle of the night – which makes sleep even more difficult. Consistent sleep patterns are key since a disrupted circadian rhythm can lead to leptin resistance.
All hormonal balance benefits from reducing the stress in your life. You can’t avoid all stress, of course, but taking time to breathe deeply and quiet your mind is essential. Do something that brings you true joy every single day. Remember that self-care is NOT selfish.
Support your body with supplements
A healthy diet is critical for maintaining healthy hormone levels – including leptin. But if you have already developed leptin resistance, you might need a bit of extra help. B vitamins, chromium picolinate, L-carnitine, and alpha-lipoic acid are all nutrients that support healthy insulin and leptin levels.
My Metabolic Boost Formula was formulated with all of these and more to reduce cravings, improve leptin balance, balance blood sugar levels, and support a healthy metabolism. Consult with a trusted healthcare professional to determine which supplements might be right for you.
Consider traditional Chinese medicine
A 2022 study found that traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) treatment, which had previously been shown to help with obesity, might work in part by affecting the leptin resistance pathway. Some of the herbal remedies that may play a role include orange peel, lotus leaf, astragalus, ginseng, and curcumin.
You can reverse leptin resistance
Remember Darlene? She enrolled in my weight loss program, where I taught her everything I’ve discussed here and more. She learned to shift her habits, changed her diet, reduced stress and worked hard to stay on track. She not only lost 20 pounds, but that belly fat she’d been pinching? Gone!
The first, most important step in reversing a problem is identifying it. Once you know leptin resistance is impacting your life, you can do what Darlene did and make the necessary diet and lifestyle changes to turn things around. It takes time, especially if the problem has been ongoing for a while, but you can do it!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD