#018: Growling tummy? Grappling with ghrelin—the hunger hormone

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If hunger is a trigger, discover how ghrelin makes a difference

Understanding how the body works and tuning into messages it sends is a form of super-supportive self-care.

Today we’re continuing to explore hunger, this time by looking at the hormone, Ghrelin.

If hunger is a trigger for overeating or bingeing, listen in to discover how ghrelin makes a difference and what you can do about it. 

Learn simple, practical strategies to reduce sensations of hunger AND the anxiety that can result from feeling even slightly peckish.

Click here for your FREE Guide: 8 Unexpected Strategies to Change Your Eating

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Now, most people who struggle with bingeing or overeating or emotional eating, aren’t sneaking extra broccoli. It’s much more likely to be those treat foods that are melt in the mouth or highly processed and pretty much designed to be irresistible. And there’s no shame in that. That was me too. I know the incredible lure of them. Those foods were able to pretty much take me out of my body, help me zone out or feel better and completely change my experience of a given moment.

And, at the same time, it’s those sweet, salty, refined and processed foods that mess with hunger and fullness hormones, including ghrelin—so they can increase the levels of hunger that you’re experiencing.

Welcome to the YoYo Freedom Podcast.

This is the place to learn actionable, step-by-step tools and strategies to help you stop bingeing or overeating and start feeling relaxed and confident around food, 

so that you can show up for your life on your terms.

I’m Gemma Keys and I know first hand what it’s like to feel out-of-control around food and trapped in the pain of binge eating and body-shame.

There is a way out. 

Keep listening to discover your path to food freedom.

Hello and welcome. How are you feeling right now? Before we move into today’s episode, you might like to take a quick scan of your body—just notice how you’re feeling and what’s going on for you for a second or two—any areas of tension or urgency or softness or calm.

Those couple of seconds of awareness can be the beginnings of creating or growing a connection and attunement. To start with, it’s that couple of seconds of noticing and tuning in and, over time, physical signals and sensations end up acting as trusted messengers between your body & brain, or your nervous system & conscious mind—and those messages are just so valuable in lovingly supporting yourself as you ease away from any feelings of compulsivity, reliance on or lack of control around food.

Today we’re gonna continue to expand that idea of opening to and exploring different forms of self care and tuning into the body by continuing to explore hormones and how they create sensations of hunger.

So there’s a little bit of physiology, but mostly an insight into how to understand how signals arise in the body and ways to experiment with small actions as you continue to make those tiny 1-degree shifts toward feeling better.

Now, I do want to add in here—I’m only too aware that feeling out-of-control around food, eating in secret, bingeing or using food to help cope with whatever’s going on in life doesn’t happen because of a lack of nutritional or any other sort of cerebral understanding. In fact, I’m certain you’re already super informed, resourceful and successful and have many areas of life absolutely nailed.

But this podcast is all about continuing to put together the different pieces of the puzzle around food and eating until the whole picture—your own unique and personal picture—comes together and becomes clearer.

So, as always, I invite you to drop anything that doesn’t land with you or an “I’ve-got-to-do-everything-all-at-one” approach when it comes to what you hear or making changes to the way you eat and feel. 

What I see to be most effective—and absolutely was the case for me as I finally eased back from bingeing—is how experimenting, being willing to be imperfect while lovingly turning toward yourself with a compassionate curiosity to find what’s right for you, and making those small changes toward feeling better—that’s where your relationship with yourself is transformed. And it really is the case that as you change your relationship with yourself the most profound changes happen in your relationship with food.

So, coming up is a brief overview of another of the hunger hormones—ghrelin—what it does, when and why it’s released, and ways you can begin to balance the levels of ghrelin in your body  so that, instead of being scared or reactionary in the face of hunger, you understand and trust the signals from your body . It’s another way to help your physiological system feel calmer so that you can in turn feel calmer about what you eat. 

As we touched on in episode 17, the human body is a genius and fine-tuned survival machine. Among many other internal & regulatory processes, hormones are a way messages are sent around the body to instigate different processes and responses.

Those signals have been fine tuned over hundreds of thousands of years of human existence and it’s only relatively recently that modern lifestyle factors have begun to interfere.

If you want to do something but your body has a different underlying drive, willpower may carry you in the direction you intend for a short time but, eventually, the body tends to win through. 

In a struggle with food—with overeating or bingeing—the body is often seen as something of an enemy. It’s easy to rail against its desires and urges for food, or to hate the way it looks because it seems to so clearly reflect the last few years of eating patterns that you wish hadn’t happened.

In this podcast, we’re continuing to explore ways to get back to a place of body trust and appreciation and connectedness which is so key to shifting eating patterns or (as I think about it these days) healing from binge eating or healing your relationship with food.

By working with our bodies, we’re so much more likely to be successful in finding what feels good for each of us, so we can make changes that last and that fit in with our real lives.

So, the hormone we’re going to talk about today is the hunger hormone, ghrelin. One of the ways to remember it’s name is to think of a tummy growling with hunger, so ghrrrrrrrelin. 

I should really try harder to find some kind of growling animal, like a dog or a lion or something, to use as a metaphor here but—cos I’m a besotted cat lady, I’m going to use my kitten VV as an example instead.

Have you ever been around a cat that wants food? My little one follows me round, gets right under my feet and trips me up, keeps looking up to check I’m taking her seriously and moving in the direction of her food bowl, and she tries all the tactics like purring and rubbing against my legs (which I love) and sometimes climbing up my legs with her claws (which I definitely don’t love so much!). Or she jumps on the table or makes those cute little cat noises like brrrrrrrrs or squeaks or meows.

Anyway, the point is, she does what it takes to make her presence known, and she won’t be ignored for long! She might doze off now and then, or be distracted by a fly or daddy long legs, but when she’s hungry she’s pretty persistent until she gets her food.

That’s what it’s like when the hunger hormone, ghrelin, is released in your body. Your tummy might growl or rumble, your throat feels hollow, you might feel a little light headed or notice your jaw is tense. Food definitely becomes much more appealing—and that’s any food, not just binge foods—so a boiled egg or chicken salad or piece of fruit, as well as bread or cookies or crisps—they all look good!

The creature that is hunger usually comes in waves, and might ease off or be distracted for a bit—like the cat chasing a fly or having a quick snooze—but it doesn’t go away.

So the point of ghrelin is to signal to your brain that you’re hungry and cause you to go and seek out food. Those signals are there to make sure you eat, because you need to eat to stay alive.

Ghrelin is secreted in the stomach lining and also a bit from the other areas in the body like the pancreas and small intestine.

It’s released in a few different situations, which I think are really worth understanding a little bit just so you can anticipate them and know what’s going on, because it can be really helpful in moving away from feeling anxious or judgemental and toward feeling just a little more curious or sort of open.

The first scenario ghrelin is released is when the stomach is empty. That makes sense, right? The stomach is slowly emptied as food is digested between meals, so ghrelin is released to ensure hunger levels gradually build until the next time to eat.

The second is when there’s some kind of trigger that makes food really tempting. Maybe a thought about something delicious, or seeing someone else with a donut, or driving past a fast food drive-thru, or even having just-one-taste or bite (like—-I don’t know about you, but that’s one of the things that was most likely to lead to a binge for me, that “I can cope with it, just one bite won’t hurt … “) Or it might be walking through a supermarket and seeing all the displays and special offers positioned right at your eye level at the end of aisles, or walking past a bakery that’s pumping out all those tantalizing smells. 

Each of those triggers individually—taste, smell, sight or thought—can cause the hunger hormone ghrelin to be released—but usually more than one trigger happens at the same time, right? Like walking past the fresh cookies and seeing and smelling them and then thinking about them incessantly. So it’s not surprising hunger signals go into overdrive!

And the third thing to cause ghrelin to be released is regular times of eating. In other words, if you eat at the same sorts of times every day, your body comes to expect a meal or snack and ghrelin is released in anticipation. So, even if, say, you have a late breakfast so you’ve recently had food, but you’re used to having lunch at noon, ghrelin can still be released as your body expects that meal at noon so you might still be hungry even after having eaten fairly recently.

I mean, I don’t know about you but I get a bit geeky about all that. Our bodies are so phenomenal and send all these different messages in different ways. But even just understanding a bit about where they’re coming from and why they’re happening can be so useful in first of all noticing what’s going on, then getting a bit more curious around your own experience, which is really helpful in calming that super-urgent, sometimes panicky, desire for food.

The next question, then, is how to work with our hunger signals so we can be less scared of them or anxious about them & trust them more, or how to work with our bodies rather than against them.

There are a couple of ways to begin to reduce hunger by lessening or rebalancing the signals coming in from ghrelin.

The first is to do with how ghrelin levels are ramped down in the body.

Well, ghrelin levels come down as your stomach registers you’ve eaten, and the types of foods that are noticed as having been eaten are those with volume or bulk that stretch the stomach wall, and also those that contain fat.

But … ghrelin levels are NOT reduced just because a food contains lots of energy or calories. Those sorts of foods just don’t really register or bring down ghrelin levels quickly. So a sugary fizzy drink or soda, or refined starchy foods don’t reduce ghrelin quickly—and tend to leave you hungry and way more likely to eat more. 

You might have noticed that you can always eat a meal after a cola because—well, it barely touches the walls. Or that you’re never really satisfied after a bag of sweets and keep looking for something more substantial to eat.

I remember once many, many years ago reading that Kate Moss ate jelly beans on her days on the catwalk. I mean, if Kate Moss did it, it was bound to work for the teenage me, right? Oh my goodness, I was ravenously hungry all the time, no matter how many jelly beans were in my body. And now I know more about this hunger hormone, ghrelin, it makes so much more sense.

Now, most people who struggle with bingeing or overeating or emotional eating, aren’t sneaking extra broccoli. It’s much more likely to be those treat foods that are melt in the mouth or highly processed and pretty much designed to be irresistible. And there’s no shame in that. That was me too. I know the incredible lure of them. Those foods were able to pretty much take me out of my body, help me zone out or feel better and completely change my experience of a given moment.

And, at the same time, it’s those sweet, salty, refined and processed foods that mess with hunger and fullness hormones, including ghrelin—so they can increase the levels of hunger that you’re experiencing.

The key action you can begin to take when it comes to naturally rebalancing and reducing levels of ghrelin is to eat more foods in their natural form.

So eating more foods that have ingredients you recognise as food rather than chemicals, like for example beef or butter or carrots or nuts or potatoes or peaches. That’s very different from something like “Red 40” or “Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate”

And, a food in its natural form is much more likely to contain fibre and other natural constituents that add volume so stretch the stomach lining—which, you’ll remember, signals that food has been eaten so stop the production of ghrelin and reduces hunger and also impacts another hormone, PPY, which acts to suppress the appetite.

Again, I really really encourage you to take one small step at a time. Perhaps you might choose to eat your veggies or salad at the beginning of a meal—which also ties in beautifully to reduce blood sugar and insulin spikes as we discussed in the last episode, episode 17, which also discussed reducing hunger and cravings (I’ll link to that episode in the show notes at yoyofreedom.com / 18)

Or to experiment with a food swap or perhaps buy lunch on the way into the office in the morning before you get to that point of being really hungry at noon and it’s way more difficult to choose something that will help you feel good later on in the day.

So there are lots of different ways to almost sneak in more whole food. One of my favourite ways so for sure to start a meal by eating the veggies first, because it feels good for me and I know I’m likely to feel more satisfied, which is a good feeling! Maybe have a brain-dump and jot down ideas and just see if there’s one that’s appealing or you’d like to give a go, and then see if it feels good.

And the second way to work with ghrelin levels to rebalance hunger to is to do with those trigger moments, when you’re thinking about food or your senses are being bombarded with smells and the sight, or your body is expecting to eat at a certain time of day.

When it comes to those triggers—especially thoughts of food, or watching someone else eating something and thinking, “I want that,” or “just one won’t hurt,”—reducing the power of those triggers often comes down to finding ways to create more of a sense of calm in your mind and, as a result, in your body.

Always, it starts with noticing what’s going on, which can be literally naming it.

Something like, “I’m noticing he’s eating that muffin and it’s causing me to think I want one too,” or “ah ha, here’s that little voice coming up telling me that I can have one bite and I’ll be fine,” or “it’s 3 o’clock, I’m hungry!”

And acknowledgement of that too—I see that through. There you are. Hello.

The next layer is to understand how the thought makes sense. “Of course I’m tempted by that muffin,” or “I’ve always dreamed of being one of the people who can have one bite of cake and hardly seem bothered by the rest of it sitting right there on a plate in front of them, so of course I want just one bite,” or “of course I’m feeling hungry—it’s 3pm and my body’s expecting a snack.”

Whether it’s a familiar pattern or a deep seated longing or something else entirely, the thought is bound to make sense in some way. So how does it make sense for you? How can you normalise it? Because doing that will take away a little of its power.

And then wonder what might be right for you now—what do you need—forget anyone else, because you know yourself and what feels good and what you really, deeply desire.

It doesn’t have to be a big thing either. It might look like, “yeah, I always want a bite but I know already I won’t be able to stop there and it’s more hassle than it’s worth,” or “he’s actually sitting down and having a break with that muffin—maybe I could take 2 minutes to sit down too” — a bit like the old days when having a cigarette seemed like a good enough reason to have a break but anyone who didn’t smoke didn’t get those breaks — But what you’d really like is a couple of minutes to yourself.

The skill here is to experiment and find what works for you. Because, when you can recognise the situation for what it is, you can uncover a small next step that helps you feel better in those moments. And it’s those small steps that keep you feeling supported and held and moving in the direction you really want to go.

And you might find what’s right for you is to avoid that particular temptation altogether, like changing your route so you’re not walking right past the bakery twice a day. That can be an offer of self-care and nurture in itself

So, to wrap up, one of the ways that hunger is signalled in your body is through the release of the hormone ghrelin—which happens when your stomach is empty, when you’re triggered by the sight, smell or thought of food, or at a time that your body is accustomed to expecting to eat.

And noticing when ghrelin is likely to be active—a bit like the meowing of that persistent, cajoling, hungry cat—can help you take steps to reduce the urgency of the hunger so you’re that little bit less likely to eat in a compulsive way or binge.

If you think back on what you’ve just heard, was there any part that resonated or especially piqued your interest? Maybe you recognise a particular trigger, like walking past a bakery, or maybe you got a little jolt of recognition that you reach for chocolate at 11am because it’s become a habit and an expectation. 

Whatever it was, see if you can come up with just one small step toward supporting yourself in that moment—whether it’s practicing a new, reassuring thought, or doing something slightly different like taking a 2 minute breather.

Try it out and just see how it feels. If it feels good, you can choose to do it again!

And, if you’d like more tips and strategies to ease back from that panicky, out-of-control feeling around food, or from overeating or binge eating, you can download my FREE guide, 8 simple strategies to break the binge eating cycle. You can download your copy at yoyofreedom.com / 18

That’s it for today’s episode. Thank you for listening.

I hope you’ve found this episode helpful. Subscribe to The YoYo Freedom Podcast for more insight, tools and support as you pull back from bingeing, overeating or yoyo-dieting and step into your most authentic, vibrant life.

And, if you liked what you heard, it would be wonderful if you’d take a moment to rate this podcast on whichever platform you listen on.

Thank you so much! And Bye-bye for now.

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Disclaimer: The content in the podcast and on this webpage is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or psychological condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have heard on the podcast or on my website.

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