Ok, I feel like I need to preface this post with my distaste for our culture’s tendency to equate weight with beauty. It’s all too easy to get bogged down constantly worrying about our appearance and comparing ourselves to other people. (I’m not immune to this, by the way.) But being healthy and happy is so much more than a number on a scale, and we’re trained — even at insanely young ages, and especially as women — to tie our self-worth to how we look and how much we weigh.
Not only is this culture-wide obsession psychologically damaging, it’s also misguided. Being thin can be a sign of good health, but it’s not always the case. It’s possible to carry some extra weight without any negative health implications, and it’s possible to be “skinny-fat” — skinny on the outside and fat on the inside, damaging your organs with visceral fat. Weight isn’t everything. It’s something, but it’s not everything.
I could fill an entire post with a rant about our misguided emphasis on weight and how damaging “fat shaming” is to folks who struggle, but that’s not what today’s post is about. We’re still continuing the conversation on gut health, so I’m going to put our weight struggles into perspective and give you some tips to help flatten out that seemingly constant uphill battle.
Gut Health and Weight Loss
I recognize that this is a sensitive topic, but it’s important to discuss for that very reason. That number on the scale, the muffin top at your side, your pants or dress size … for better or for worse, these things can dictate how we feel — physically and psychologically — and those feelings have can have tremendous effects on how we walk through the world.
Our weight can limit our ability to do even basic things — play with our children, walk up a hill, climb stairs — and as such, it can have a major effect on our self-esteem. Of course I’m not saying that extra weight affects every person’s self-image or every person in general in the same way. I wouldn’t presume to step into anyone else’s shoes. But I will say from experience that carrying even a little bit of extra weight can sometimes cause dramatic shifts in how I feel about myself, and that it’s always so much easier to put it on than it is to take it back off.
So today, we’re going to talk about why our bodies hang onto those extra pounds, what’s happening in our guts when we gain and lose weight, and how healing the gut can make maintaining and losing weight easier and more long-lasting.
Let’s Get Started: Good Bugs
Last week we covered Mood and Gut Health, and I explained how an inflamed gut = an inflamed brain. I talked about the physiological and chemical changes that happen when we have an inflamed gut and how that can lead to mood issues like anxiety and depression.
Are you an anxious eater? Do you “drown your sorrows” in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s when you’re feeling down? Do you have an extra beer or 4 when you’ve had a bad week? Stress (which we’ll get into in another part of this series) has an effect on our gut flora, and the type of gut flora we have affects our mood and our resiliency. But did you know that some gut bacteria can actually make our bodies hold onto fat?
That’s right; if we nurture the wrong types of bacteria in our gut through a poor diet and high-stress lifestyle, they will sabotage our efforts to lose weight by squeezing every last nutrient out of the food we eat and storing it all as fat. It’s also been shown in recent studies that certain gut microbes can dictate our cravings. So maybe it’s not YOU craving that cheesecake at all! It’s the BUGS in your gut telling your brain they want some dinner! Those jerks!
As far as weight gain is concerned, getting the proper mix of bacteria is as important as eating veggies and exercising (and it just so happens that those two things are great for the good bugs!).
Did you know we have 10 times more bacterial DNA living in and on our bodies than we do human DNA?
We’re like one giant walking bacteria frat house.
If your house were a 24-hour party, with people coming and going constantly, wouldn’t you want to create an environment that welcomes considerate people who bring delicious appetizers and help you with the dishes instead of jerks who park on your lawn, eat your food, and leave cup rings on your nice wood furniture?? I think so.
By now it should be clear that our gut bacteria affects our bodies in profound ways. But before I go any further, let me back up and talk about the way our bodies work to store and release fat.
Gremlins and Leprechauns
Wait, I think I meant to say ghrelin and leptin. Look, I never said I wasn’t gonna be cheesy in explaining this stuff to you. After the unicorns and dragons from the Gate Keeper post, I figured I might as well throw some more mythical creatures into the mix.
Ghrelin and leptin both control appetite. The former makes you hungry while the latter makes you full. More specifically, ghrelin tells your brain to eat and promotes fat storage, while leptin tells your brain you’ve had enough and encourages fat release.
Ghrelin is released from the stomach and pancreas and is activated by the GOAT enzyme high up in the stomach. If you’ve ever looked into bariatric surgery, you might already know that the restriction in the stomach reduces the production of the GOAT enzyme, which reduces or eliminates ghrelin production, allowing patients to feel full with a dramatically reduced amount of food.
Unfortunately, our brains evolved to protect us from starvation at a time when food was a lot harder to come by, so if there isn’t an artificial restriction turning off ghrelin while we’re trying to lose weight, those hunger pangs can be pretty brutal. And if the body thinks we’re starving, it will store every ounce of food we eat as fat — just in case. Adding to that, if we’re already obese, our ghrelin levels are higher than those of our lean buddies, causing greater hunger and a harder time resisting temptations.
Recent findings have also shown that high-fat foods activate the GOAT enzyme, which means that high-fat foods could be making us hungrier and telling our brain to store more of what we’re eating as body fat.
Oh, and one more thing. Sleep deprivation increases ghrelin. Do you find yourself snacking all day long after a terrible night’s sleep? I always thought it was because my body was trying to keep me awake. Now I know it’s that gremlin ghrelin!
It’s not all bad. Ghrelin is also responsible for controlling insulin levels (another hormone that causes weight gain) and stimulating a hormone in the pituitary gland that mobilizes fat tissue and promotes muscle growth. We need ghrelin. It’s not just there to mess with us.
Leptin is produced in white fat cells and communicates to the brain, “Ok, there’s enough here, get up and move around.” Interestingly, like ghrelin, the more body fat you have, the more leptin you have — counterintuitive isn’t it?
I’ll explain. Have you ever heard the term insulin resistance? It’s a metabolic disorder that leads to type-2 diabetes. Insulin regulates the delivery of glucose into the cells, but when the cell walls no longer properly respond to insulin due to excessive exposure, they resist allowing glucose into the cell. This results in excess glucose in the blood, which then gets stored as fat, in addition to being associated with a number of health problems.
The same thing happens with leptin resistance in brain cells — the cell walls in neurons become resistant to leptin when there’s too much of it floating around. In fact the two hormones leptin and insulin go hand in hand, both intimately linked to inflammation. If you have insulin resistance, you likely have leptin resistance, and vice versa.
The effects of leptin resistance are multi-fold.
- Leptin is proinflammatory, which means that when there’s too much of it floating around in the body, it can set off that inflammatory cascade that leads to leaky gut and bad bacteria in the gut.
- Leptin inhibits serotonin, so if there’s too much leptin, guess what there’s not enough of … (should I link the mood/gut post again? sure, why not?)
- Leptin tells your brain to stop eating, but if the neurons in the brain have closed their doors due to leptin resistance, guess what message isn’t getting received? And then we eat and eat and eat, never feeling satisfied.
What to do? What to do?
This post is about weight loss, not weight gain, right? So how do we set all these bugs and hormones straight? How do we prevent our bodies from sabotaging our efforts to lose body fat?
I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that reducing stress is a great place to start. I briefly touched on the negative effects of stress on gut bacteria at the beginning of this post, but reducing stress also helps prevent leptin resistance. And I don’t just mean “OMG deadline!” stress. I mean physical stress caused by things like a Big Mac and fries or a super sized Coke too, which means we need to …
Skip the Junk
Foods high in inflammatory fats (omega 6, trans-fats, and saturated fats from conventionally raised animals) and processed carbs (from white flour and white sugar) not only cause leaky gut and promote the growth of bad bacteria in the gut, they also raise ghrelin and create leptin resistance.
The Right Stuff
Fill your belly with healthy fats from eggs and raw nuts and fiber-rich foods. I’m not talking about Metamucil or some gross processed saw dusty thing to add to your water. I’m talking about whole fruits (not juice), veggies, sweet potatoes, winter squash, and (occasional) whole grains and legumes. (If you need to lose weight, I’d stick to the first 4 for now.) These fiber-rich foods will prevent or inhibit leptin resistance and make losing weight that much easier.
Small and Often
To prevent the starvation response, don’t skip breakfast, and eat smaller, low-glycemic meals throughout the day. Everyone is different in this regard — some people find that eating 3 times a day works for them. Some people find they’re much happier eating 4 to 6 times a day. Either way, don’t let any one meal get too huge — it’s not just the content but the size of the meal that triggers ghrelin.
Get Some Rest
Are my lists in this series starting to seem redundant? Last week we learned that getting a good, consistent sleep pattern going helps promote beneficial bacteria in the gut. This week, I’m telling you that it keeps ghrelin, and therefore hunger, in check during the day.
Step into those Sneakers
And again with the exercise. Isn’t it more motivating to know that exercise is about so much more than just the calories you burn while you’re doing it? Exercise not only increases good gut flora, but it also prevents leptin resistance by converting white fat to brown fat. (I didn’t have enough room to go into these two types of fat, but check out what WebMD has to say about it for the difference between Fit Fat (brown) and Fatal Fat (white).) Those calories you’re burning barely amount to half of all the great things you’re doing for your health just by breaking a sweat.
I just threw a lot of information at you. How do you feel about it? Are you ready to start making some changes? Pick something from this list of 6 that you can start working on today — just ONE, no more — and commit to yourself that you’ll keep it going all week. Just start with this week and then reassess next week. You might find that you’re already noticing a difference and are ready to incorporate something else from this list. Maybe you want to stick to the one thing for another week. Either way, that’s ok! It’s just about getting started and making small changes that will last for the long haul! There are still at least two more Why Gut Health Matters posts coming your way, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I’m here to answer any questions you might have. Shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to help.
Did you miss the first three parts of this series? Check them out here!
Sources for this segment of the series include a 6-credit continuing education seminar presented by Merrily Kuhn, RN, CCRN (r), PhD, ND, PhD and the Institute of Brain Potential (bibliography and references can be viewed here), and information from the following articles, journals, and experts:
Dr. Mark Hyman: http://drhyman.com/
Chris Kresser: http://chriskresser.com/