We each have a unique mess of hormones, activators, inhibitors, promoters and messengers floating around inside of us. They respond to what and how we eat, move, sleep, think and breathe. And they affect everything from emotions to basic body functions. Take metabolism, for example: We often think of it as a furnace that “burns” calories. In lucky people, it runs “fast,” while many of us are left to contend with one that runs “slow.” In reality, metabolism is more like “Cirque du Soleil,” in which a lot of players with different roles choreograph the intake, storage and use of energy. Let’s take a look at the cast …
1. The Cookie Monster – Ghrelin
When the stomach is empty, it signals to the hypothalamus to increase hunger by releasing ghrelin from the gut. As we eat, our stomach stretches, and we stop making ghrelin.
Ghrelin supports metabolic stability. If we begin drastically eating less, or lose body weight, we make more ghrelin in an attempt to help us hang on to the weight. This might explain why it is so difficult to keep weight off after a diet. And why the hormonal chaos of stress leads to stress-eating.
How do we make less ghrelin?
No one likes to constantly battle the “me-eat-all-the-cookies” feeling, and a well-rounded approach can minimize ghrelin.
Sweating: Studies show that vigorous cardio or resistance exercise can suppress ghrelin and hunger for up to two hours and can maintain levels for up to nine hours.
Chillin’: Good sleep and other techniques that reduce stress can also help reduce ghrelin.
The right foods: Get plenty of fiber in your diet to feel fuller for longer. And if you’re trying to lose some weight, don’t restrict your caloric intake too much.
Master the habit: Making healthy choices a default habit is the simplest (albeit sometimes hardest) way to keep your inner Cookie Monster in check.
2. The Anti-Hoarder – Glucagon
Glucagon is a hormone produced in the pancreas, in response to low blood-glucose (sugar) levels, and in response to vigorous exercise. The effects of glucagon are opposite to those of insulin. The two hormones work in partnership with each other to keep blood-glucose levels balanced.
Glucagon gets energy out of storage and into our blood. It starts the conversion of stored sugar, protein and fat into fuel for our cells.
So how can we make more glucagon?
Higher intensity, longer duration workouts will lower our blood sugar. This prompts the release of glucagon, and we’ll start using that energy we’ve been storing.
3. The Superstar – Insulin
The most famous metabolic hormone, insulin, is released from the pancreas when our blood sugar rises (usually after eating). Cells love it, because it helps them absorb the energy (glucose) they need to survive. It also stimulates the liver and muscle cells to store any excess energy.
When cells do not respond normally to the presence of insulin, we call them insulin resistant. These resistant cells can’t absorb glucose from the blood without more (and sometimes even more) insulin. This creates a dysfunctional relationship between insulin and blood glucose. It can even result in a burnt-out pancreas that can’t make any insulin at all (a.k.a. diabetes).
How can we fight insulin resistance?
Insulin resistant cells need a break from high levels of insulin caused by elevated blood sugar. The good news is, there are a lot of ways to work on this. For instance:
Use it: Muscle tissue is a huge consumer of glucose. Using your lean mass will lower blood sugar by increasing demand.
Vary your workouts: Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates the combination of some cardio and some resistance training workouts is best for improving insulin sensitivity.
Eat from this entourage: A group of foods, which scientists call insulin sensitizers, have been shown to improve cellular response to insulin when consumed with or just after meals. Try vinegar, green tea, nuts and spices like cinnamon and turmeric.
Less is more: Less sugar in the mouth means less sugar in the blood. If sweets are your jam, find little ways to reduce your consumption of sugar every day.
4. The Backup Dancer – Adiponectin
Adiponectin is a protein made by our fat cells, which increases our body’s ability to burn fat as fuel. It also seems to make our bodies more sensitive to insulin – making us better able to get energy into our cells for use.
Adiponectin levels are lower in people with obesity or type-2 diabetes than they are in lean subjects. In a nutshell, more adiponectin means improved insulin sensitivity.
How can we make more adiponectin?
Overall, the research shows that low-to-moderate intensity exercise – an easy jog or bike ride – works well for improving adiponectin concentration and insulin sensitivity.
As you see, the many hormones in our body each play an important role in the production of making the metabolism work. Here’s hoping yours moves quickly.