How Inflammation Affects Our Hypothalamus and Hunger Response
Written By: Kevin Cann
Our lifestyles are much different than those of our Paleolithic ancestors. Our ancestors had to worry about predators, food shortages, and droughts. They had plenty of down time to relax and unwind and had to be active to forage for food. Currently, none of this applies. The only predators that we need to worry about are locked up in a cage in a zoo and food is found at super markets that are easily accessible via automobile. This does not mean that our stress levels are lower than those of our ancestors; in fact our stress levels are much higher and is it a coincidence that our rate of obesity is also much higher?
On a day to day basis we deal with stressful things such as shortened sleep periods, traffic, bosses and coworkers, family and relationship issues, worries about money, health, health of family members, etc. Our stress response has not had the time to adapt to this list of constant and chronic environmental stressors. Identifying when these stressors are affecting us and finding optimal ways to manage these stressors are keys to our health and well-being. Also, not adding stressors such as overtraining, eating gut irritating foods and overeating are also key components to maintaining a positive quality of life.
Environmental stressors cause a reaction in our bodies. Inflammatory cytokines are released and this can be detrimental to our health. Inflammatory cytokines suppress our body’s ability to defend itself from outside pathogens. They can also cross the gut-brain barrier and influence infectious, auto-immune, and allergic diseases (Elenkov, 1999). One of the biggest culprits of this is the inflammatory cytokine interleukin-6.
IL-6 actually interferes with the liver and causes a build-up of the glycoprotein, fibrogen in the blood. This increases the thickness of our blood. Along with this we get an increase in serum amyloid A, a group of proteins associated with our HDL in our blood. This increase in serum amyloid A leads to a decrease of HDL in our blood. The increased thickness of blood and the decreased HDL can lead to arthrosclerosis, but that is a story for another day. The IL-6 can also interact with our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) and this can lead to insulin resistance and obesity (Yudkin, 1999).
Our hypothalamus is the part of our brain that controls our hunger response. Leptin, and to a lesser extent, insulin are controlled from this section of the brain. Inflammatory cytokines can cross into the hypothalamus and induce leptin and insulin resistance, which then can lead to weight gain. One major cause of this is overeating. Our cells have an energy limit that is preset. Anything more or less can be detrimental to our bodies. When excess food intake is introduced to our bodies we react via cellular inflammation. This inflammation causes a down regulation of leptin and insulin receptors. Both leptin and insulin are important in weight control. Leptin signals to our brain how much body fat we need to store and insulin stores the body fat in response to what leptin tells our brains. When the down regulation of receptors occurs our hypothalamus goes into a protective, starvation mode and increases our appetite and decreases our willingness to exercise. This leads to weight gain, which then leads to increased leptin in the blood, which leads to more weight gain. Eventually we reach obesity (Wisse, 2009).
Food selection becomes another critical component as well as balancing the omega 6:omega 3 ratio. Certain foods can actually shut off our body’s way of telling ourselves we are full. They elicit a response from dopamine and serotonin and this makes us feel good. They also elicit a response from cannabinoids that make us crave these foods (For more information on this topic read my past posts on Carb Addiction, and Food Addiction). This can lead to overeating which causes the inflammatory response mentioned previously. This is why “everything in moderation” is an unsuccessful tactic in most cases.
Finding ways to manage our everyday stress and eating a paleo diet are keys to mitigating the inflammation response that can lead to so many negative health outcomes. Studies have been done on some alternative health therapies and inflammation. Behavioral therapy, hypnosis, mediation, acupuncture, and biofeedback have all been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects through stimulation of the vagus nerve, the nerve that connects our brain to our gut (Tracey, 2002). If weight loss is your goal it is imperative that you handle your stress, and the inflammation that comes with it. If you don’t, you may just be wasting your time and effort on diet and exercise.
Tracey, Kevin (2002). The Inflammatory Reflex. Nature Publishing Group. Retrieved March 23, 2012.
Wisse, Brent (2009). Does hypothalamic inflammation cause obesity? Cell Metabolism. Retrieved on March 23, 2012.
Yudkin, John (1999). Inflammation, obesity, stress, and coronary heart disease; is interleukin-6 the link? Retrieved on March 23, 2012.
Elenkov, Ilia (1999). Stress hormones th1/th2 patterns, pro/anti-inflammatory cytokines, and susceptibility to disease. www.pubmed.gov. Retrieved on March 23, 2012
Kevin is owner of Genetic Potential Nutrition. He is a holistic nutritionist, wellness coach, and strength coach. He works with people fighting illness, to competitive athletes. Check out his site at www.geneticpotentialnutrition.