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Leptin is a hormone with a key role in food intake and body weight homeostasis. Made by fat tissue, leptin helps control body fat and prevent weight gain, but only when there’s enough of it and when it’s working properly. When leptin resistance develops, as in obesity, leptin stores are plenty high, but the hormone can’t reach its target site—the hypothalamus in the brain. This leaves the brain thinking leptin levels are too low and the body is starving. In response, the brain sends multiple signals to the body to increase food intake and store fat, leading to weight gain and causing rebound weight gain whenever weight is lost through dieting.
In our post “What Is Leptin: Unlocking the Key to Weight Loss, we describe the phenomenon of leptin resistance in more detail. Here, we discuss how to increase leptin sensitivity in order to treat leptin resistance. This is the key to lowering the weight set point, making it easier to achieve and sustain meaningful weight loss. (See also our post “Leptin Foods: The Answer to ‘Why Am I Always Hungry?‘”)
Research on how to increase leptin sensitivity is still in the early stages, but some clear strategies are emerging. The key to treating leptin resistance is to target the two clearly identified underlying causes you read about in “What Is Leptin?: inflammation in the hypothalamus and poor gut health/increased gut permeability.1 Below are five excellent ways to get leptin resistance under control by targeting these underlying mechanisms.
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How to Increase Leptin Sensitivity: 5 Strategies
- Go gluten-free. As you learned in our What Is Leptin? post, gluten is now known to leak through the intestinal lining and increase intestinal permeability in everyone who eats it. Increased intestinal permeability then causes inflammation in the hypothalamus, reducing leptin sensitivity.3 Removing gluten (all foods and food additives containing wheat, rye, and barley) from your diet will help heal leaky gut, improve gut health and gut barrier function, and incite less inflammation throughout the body, especially in the brain.3 You will get much better results in terms of weight loss and improving your overall health if you avoid “gluten-free” and “sugar-free” alternatives to processed, refined foods altogether. For instance, replace gluten-containing foods with whole, fresh foods instead of with gluten-free breads, pastas, and baked goods.
- Cut the sugar. One way researchers induce leptin resistance in animals is by feeding them high- sugar diets. Taking the sugar out of lab animals’ diets reverses leptin resistance. Reduce your sugar consumption by eating a diet with no added sweeteners and only moderate amounts of whole fruits (limit fruit juices). This will lower your intake of both sucrose and fructose, increasing leptin sensitivity and reversing leptin resistance.4-6
- Feed your gut bacteria with prebiotics and probiotics. Knowing how to increase leptin sensitivity by improving gut health and promoting healthy gut bacteria is key to reversing leptin resistance. A healthy balance of gut bacteria is critical for maintaining the integrity of the intestinal barrier and keeping inflammation at bay.7 Prebiotics are fibers that are fermented by healthy gut bacteria (such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli) that improve the health of intestinal lining, decrease inflammation, and increase leptin sensitivity.8 Make sure to include plenty of prebiotics in your diet by eating garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, shallots, beets, fennel, green peas, snow peas, savoy cabbage, chickpeas, lentils, nectarines, white peaches, watermelon, grapefruit, pomegranate, dates, figs, pistachios, and cashews. Probiotics are also important and have been shown to help treat and prevent obesity, possibly by increasing leptin sensitivity.9 Many different probiotics have been found to reduce weight and modify leptin, including numerous strains of lactobacilli and saccharomyces boulardii.10,11 Raw fermented foods contain probiotics. Eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and kefir also helps maintain the integrity of the intestinal barrier, improve the balance of gut bacteria, and can help promote fat loss.12 Learn more in Prebiotics vs Probiotics: What’s The Difference?
- Load up on anti-inflammatory polyphenols. Dietary phytonutrients are important health-promoting compounds in plant foods. While it’s been known for quite some time that diets high in fruits, vegetables, and other phytonutrient-rich plant foods (such as tea and certain spices) are linked to decreased obesity, researchers are beginning to tease out which phytonutrients seem to have the biggest impact and to understand why. Many phytochemicals directly decrease inflammation within the brain and throughout the body. Among them, certain phytonutrients from a large group called polyphenols stand out as being especially important for weight regulation through their ability to decrease inflammation and increase leptin sensitivity.13 Some of the polyphenols that can directly decrease hypothalamic inflammation and/or increase leptin sensitivity include curcumin from the spice turmeric14,15, anthocyanidins and other polyphenols in blueberries16 and plums17, resveratrol from red grapes18, and catechins and other polyphenols in green tea19 and yerba mate20 (a South American tea). Given the wide variety of polyphenols in plant foods, there are likely hundreds more polyphenol-rich foods that affect leptin sensitivity. For this reason, one of the most important things you can do is to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices, including blueberries, plums, red grapes or red wine, turmeric, and green tea or yerba mate in your regular diet as often as possible. (Polyphenols also lower blood pressure. Read more in Polyphenol Benefits: Antioxidant, Anti-Inflammatory, Blood Vessel Dilator.)
- Exercise. Physical activity has anti-inflammatory effects directly in the hypothalamus and restores leptin sensitivity.21,22 Exercise, therefore, is integral in the treatment of leptin resistance. Get your body moving in whatever way is fun and enriching to you, whether it’s walking, Zumba, Crossfit, swimming, running, yoga, or one of the hundreds of other ways to get your heart rate up and your muscles pumping. If you are currently sedentary or not very fit, it is vital that you start slowly, gradually stepping up the frequency and intensity of your activity, in order to prevent injuries. Your goal should be at least thirty minutes a day of moderate exercise (less with high intensity exercise) most days of the week. When you exercise, the stress on your muscle cells causes them to secrete inflammatory compounds, like IL-6, which goes to the brain and paradoxically has anti-inflammatory effects in the brain and causes leptin sensitivity to increase.
Treating Leptin Resistance
If you’re overweight, treating leptin resistance is one of the most important things you can do for losing weight and keeping it off. Research on how to increase leptin sensitivity to reverse leptin resistance is only in its infancy.
The five strategies for treating leptin resistance discussed here reflect the latest research on how to increase leptin sensitivity through improving gut health and decreasing inflammation in the hypothalamus. To get your body back to a normal weight set point, just follow these five steps:
- Eliminate gluten.
- Eliminate sugar.
- Eat more polyphenol-rich plant foods.
- Get more prebiotics and probiotics.
- Get 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.
If you’ve used these or other strategies to reset your body’s weight set point, tell us about it in the comments section below.
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Originally published in 2015, this post is regularly updated.