There is something inside of us called hunger monst… er, the hunger hormone. It is actually called ghrelin.
Ghrelin, come on. It sounds like a small medieval, elf-like, devilish creature, doesn’t it?
And now, what can a decent hormone do when it’s confused for the ultimate bad guy, the one who’s always making you, human, thrive for that extra glazed donut or mac and cheese, like, now?
It’s true, one of ghrelin’s main tasks is to check if your stomach is empty and then alarm the brain about it. Next, the appetite attack. You feel hungry. The rest — oh, you know, “insert. food. here.” scenario.
However, I’m convinced ghrelin needs another chance to convince you he’s a good guy.
Either way, it’s not your fault you don’t know of many benefits this commonly misunderstood “hunger monster” does for your body.
How does ghrelin work?
In a nutshell, the stomach hunger cycle, as a matter of fact, begins with ghrelin. The moment our bodies have burned up the food in our stomachs and our blood sugar and insulin levels begin to drop, ghrelin communicates with the hypothalamus in the brain.
The hypothalamus, housed in the deep center portion of our brain cavity, regulates our basic body functions such as thirst, sleep, and sex drive. Once it receives the message, delivered by ghrelin, that we need to eat something to keep our bodies running, the hypothalamus triggers the release of neuropeptide Y, which stimulates our appetites.
I’ll dare to say that it’s quite easy to find the biological pattern of ghrelin function even for the ancient human. In order to be alive and not die from lack of food, humans got to eat. Hence ghrelin. He reminds us that our fuel levels are low and that we need a refill.
So, when we recognize that our body needs and wants food and we start to eat, another process happens to counter that hunger feeling in order to keep us from binging. First, the fat tissues expel the hormone leptin.
This chemical tells our brains that our bodies are cool and satisfied and that everything is fine and we can stop eating.
How? By turning down the production of neuropeptide Y and cranking up levels of proopiomelanocortin, an appetite suppressant, in our bloodstream.
The hypothalamus also monitors our insulin and blood sugar levels to ensure that we’ve eaten enough to bring those levels back up. Since this process doesn’t happen instantaneously, we may feel uncomfortably stuffed after a large meal.
A SERIOUSLY GOOD GUY, GHRELIN
How can something associated with obesity and hunger, be good for your overall health?
Sit down, let me introduce you to numerous benefits of ghrelin.
Ghrelin has been found to improve neuroplasticity (I’ll explain it later, hold on a bit) decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s and increase learning and memory by helping to build the hippocampus.
How?! Well, every time you’re hungry you are actually building your brain power and improving your memory. Don’t act so surprised, when an ancient man felt hunger, he had to be smart to be able to catch something to eat.
The addition of injected ghrelin has even been found to improve the conditions of many types of mammals who were already suffering from memory loss.
Neuroplasticity is indeed something really important. This is our ability to form new neural pathways, repair damage and learn new things. A truly big deal.
Stating that being hungry can help our brains is so stating the obvious, I know.
But be hungry.
Before each meal, wait a bit but not long enough to get into crisis. There is a great deal of research on ghrelin’s ability to help the brain.
Ghrelin signals the release of growth hormone all over the body. This hormone (HGH) signals growth and repair, cell reproduction and regeneration, increases calcium retention and may help with bone density.
It also stimulates the immune system and helps to grow and repair our internal organs and helps the liver to stabilize our blood sugars.
Many of us have lower than optimal amounts of growth hormone in our systems because it is suppressed by insufficient sleep, stress and blood sugar dysregulation.
When our blood sugars and insulin are high, we don’t release growth hormone, so we need enough time after meals for them to go back to the baseline and the growth hormone to rise. As a matter of fact, our hunger hormone signals the release of even more of this powerful regenerating hormone.
Ghrelin has benefits for the digestive system, too. It builds the digestive mucosa. This is a protective lining on the surface of our inner skin, our stomachs, small and large intestines.
Ghrelin has amazing benefits for our digestive tracts, our whole bodies, and our brains.
So, once again — be hungry. Steve Jobs was maybe right about this one.