When talking about weight loss, we need to look at the big picture in order to get down to the root cause of weight gain and/or weight loss resistance. An often-overlooked factor is the optimal functioning of the hypothalamus.
How the Hypothalamus Works
The hypothalamus is often referred to as the master hormonal system organ which affects the function of the pituitary gland, pineal gland, thyroid, adrenals, and ovaries/testes; both directly and indirectly. It is a small gland at the base of the brain (it’s about the size of an almond), located in the middle of the brain behind the eyes. Of course, there can be several factors that influence weight gain and the inability to lose weight but I will focus on the many ways of how the hypothalamus is involved.
Within the hypothalamus are nerve cells that when activated produce the sensation of hunger. In close proximity to these cells are another set of nerves that when activated, switch off the sensation of hunger. Our desire to eat is determined by which of these two types of nerves dominate at a particular time. So what controls the activity of these nerve cells and decides which group prevails – and either makes us hungry or suppresses our hunger?
10 Hormones that Influence Hunger
There are at least 10 hormones that can influence hunger (some of these include leptin, insulin, and ghrelin). Of these, six come from the gut which includes ghrelin (ghrelin actually makes us hungry). The other hormones have been shown to reduce hunger (in addition to food consumption). Once the stomach is full, it reduces the desire to eat both by lowering ghrelin production (the hormone that makes us hungry) and by sending a message to the hypothalamus stating something like “ok, I’m done eating now.” The nerves in the hypothalamus respond accordingly to these circulating hormones and nutrients.
How Neurotransmitter Signals Play a Role
In addition, the hypothalamus also receives signals from message pathways that use “feel good” neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin as messengers, which can influence eating behavior. A lot of these neurotransmitters are produced in the gut by your microbiome (beneficial bacteria). If the gut is healthy, guess what? You get the proper amounts of neurotransmitter production. In turn, your hypothalamus receives the correct signals that it needs to function properly.
The hypothalamus plays a key role in energy balance and metabolism. Not only does the hypothalamus control thyroid hormones, which play a significant role in regulating metabolism, but it also directly influences appetite through sending and receiving signals involved with leptin, insulin, and ghrelin. Thus, the hypothalamus involves two of the major signaling pathways involved in energy regulation. So dysfunction could lead to obesity and associated disorders.
Dysfunction in the Hypothalamus
There are many things that can interrupt the working of the hypothalamus. Things that interact with or impact the hypothalamus, and can disrupt normal function include inflammation (from food, emotional stress, chemical/heavy metal toxicity), oxidative stress, certain addictive drugs like opioids. Additionally, mild to moderate reduction of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine.
Another thing to consider is that the hypothalamus is part of a negative feedback loop in regulating many hormonal glands. So if your downstream hormones are high, then they will tell the hypothalamus not to signal the pituitary to stimulate these glands. This is a normal part of physiology and maintaining balance but in a state of dysfunction, this negative feedback loop could cause issues.
Ways to Correct Hypothalamus Dysfunction
Luckily, there are some easy things you can do to correct some common causes of hypothalamic dysfunction and keep this important part of your brain healthy.
The Importance of Food: Avoiding the Standard American Diet
Of course, weight loss and weight regulation rely heavily on a healthy diet. This includes a high intake of vegetables, some fruits, clean sources of protein, and minimal grains. You have probably heard many reasons to avoid the Standard American Diet or SAD, which is a diet consisting of mainly highly refined, processed foods with lots of trans fats. Processed foods such as candy, boxed or instant foods, and your typical snack foods actually contain chemicals that are known as obesogens. And after eating these types of foods for several years or even decades, these can cause reprogramming of metabolic setpoints and cause dysregulation of hormones. These chemicals found in food (as well as trans fats) also cause inflammation. As you reduce the intake of these foods, you reduce inflammation and the associated metabolic dysfunction, which can help you lose weight and reduce your risk for metabolic disease, including insulin resistance.
Holistic health is an excellent resource to explore when you need help with weight loss, as SAD is not helpful when one is trying to become healthy and lose weight. At Total Health, we educate people on what to eat and why. A healthy diet is fundamental in weight loss and maintenance of a healthy weight.
Importance of Managing Stress
Managing stress is another way to keep your hypothalamus happy. Consistent chronic stress causes the hypothalamus to send messages to the pituitary gland to tell the adrenals to release cortisol. When cortisol is released on a frequent basis, it actually inflames things, especially the brain (where the hypothalamus is located). Chronic stress is very detrimental as it affects the whole hormonal system via the hypothalamus.
Importance of Exercise
Another easy way to minimize inflammation in the hypothalamus? Exercise! One study found regular to moderate running on the treadmill led to a reduction in hypothalamic inflammation in mice. To achieve benefits, the mice did not even have to meet the normal threshold for benefits to memory and learning, which has been set at 0.5 kilometers per day. Instead, the mice in the experiment exercised just 0.15 kilometers per day. There was also a reduction in the activation of microglia, which are cells activated by inflammatory cytokines that further release more cytokines. For humans, a good streamlined workout for at least 30 minutes 3-4 times a week may be sufficient. This is another area where your holistic health provider can help you incorporate the right type(s) of exercise to fit your personal needs and goals.
Many of us have a lifetime of stored chemicals and heavy metals. Over time, these items can cause a multitude of problems as they bioaccumulate in the body. These are often stored in fatty tissue (your brain is approximately 70% fat). In some cases, in order to lose weight one may have to detox first while supporting the hypothalamus with targeted nutrition, so that it may function well again. This is another area where your holistic health provider can help you navigate.
We Can Help!
If you are wondering if your hypothalamus is the reason why weight loss is difficult, please give our clinic a call at 262-251-2929 to schedule a 10-minute complimentary call with me so that we can address your health concerns.
Resources: Yi CX, Al-Massadi O, Donelan E, Lehti M, Weber J, Ress C, Trivedi C, Müller TD, Woods SC, Hofmann SM. Exercise protects against high-fat diet-induced hypothalamic inflammation. Physiol Behav. 2012 Jun 25;106(4):485-90.