What Does It Mean to Be Leptin Resistant?

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on April 5, 2017Written by Jerisha Parker Gordon on April 5, 2017

About leptin and resistance

Leptin is a hormone that helps control body weight. It’s made in your fat cells, moves through your bloodstream, and communicates with your brain. It’s supposed to help your brain and your body work together to know when you’re hungry.

Everyone has a different threshold for leptin, which is determined by your own weight and appetite history. When you have the right amount of leptin for you, it’s business as usual for your metabolism. If you have more leptin than your body needs, it signals your brain to begin burning energy. If you have less leptin than your body needs, your brain thinks that you’re in a starvation state. That’s why leptin is known as the “starvation hormone.”

During a starvation state, your body begins processes that will increase your leptin levels. This includes activating your vagus nerve, which makes you feel hungry. Your body tells you to eat in hopes of restoring your leptin levels.

If you’re leptin resistant, you have more than enough leptin available, but your brain believes that you’re in a starvation state. This can have a negative impact on your weight and put you at risk for other health conditions.

Keep reading to learn more about why this happens, how to recognize it, and what you can do about it.

What are the symptoms of leptin resistance, and who is at risk?

Leptin resistance can be difficult to nail down, though elevated blood levels of leptin may be a sign. Unlike many other conditions, leptin resistance doesn’t have a set of identifiable symptoms. Instead, it affects your body in subtler ways.

If you’re leptin resistant, you may notice one or more of the following:

You’re overweight or obese. People who are leptin resistant are often overweight by about 15 pounds or more.

Your weight-loss plan isn’t working. If you’re actively trying to lose weight through diet and exercise and aren’t seeing results, leptin resistance may be to blame.

You’re constantly snacking. People with leptin resistance often have a hard time making it meal to meal without snacking in between. This is because their hormones are signaling that they’re hungry.

You’re eating large quantities of food. People with leptin resistance often have delayed satiety. They typically feel the need to eat more than others to feel full.

You’re under a lot of stress. When you’re under a lot of stress, it can cause your cortisol (stress hormone) levels to spike. This can lead to leptin resistance.

You aren’t getting enough sleep. Not sleeping properly can also cause your cortisol levels to rise.

Other risk factors for leptin resistance include insulin resistance and obesity.

Learn more: Is it binge eating disorder? »

What causes leptin resistance to occur?

Research from 2014 suggests that there are four main factors in developing leptin resistance, particularly if it’s related to obesity. These include:

Hyperleptinemia: This occurs when you have chronically high levels of leptin. The more often your leptin levels are higher than average, the more likely you are to develop leptin resistance.

Inflammation: There’s some evidence to suggest that leptin resistance is tied to inflammation in the hypothalamus. Furthermore, inflammation in the fat tissue can lead to insulin resistance, which may go on to trigger leptin resistance.

Hypothalamic endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress: Hypothalamic ER stress may also play a role in the development of leptin resistance. Recent studies show that ER stress can be induced with a diet high in saturated fat.

Defective autophagy: Autophagy occurs when your body consumes its own tissues during the starvation state. Changes, or defects, in this process can trigger insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a risk factor for leptin resistance.

Learn more: Insulin resistance »

How is leptin resistance diagnosed?

If you think you’re having symptoms of leptin resistance, see your doctor. They can review your medical history and talk through your concerns.

After assessing your symptoms and performing a physical exam, your doctor may take a blood sample to test your leptin levels. The blood draw is typically taken from a vein in your arm.

Depending on your results, your doctor may make a diagnosis or order further testing. Your leptin levels can vary day to day, so your doctor may check your levels again at a later date before diagnosing leptin resistance.

How to reverse leptin resistance

The best way to reverse leptin resistance is to cut down on diet-induced inflammation. Diet-induced inflammation can lead to obesity, which is a major factor in leptin resistance. Inflammatory foods to limit or avoid include:

  • sugary sweets, such as soda and candy bars
  • foods high in saturated fats, such as meat products and full-fat dairy products
  • foods high in trans fats, including frozen meals and margarine
  • foods high in omega-6 fatty acids, such as mayonnaise and certain salad dressings
  • refined carbohydrates, which are often found in white flour products such as bread and crackers

On the other hand, anti-inflammatory foods you should eat include:

  • foods rich in omega-3, such as salmon, sardines, walnuts, and flaxseed
  • vegetables and fruits
  • nuts and seeds
  • legumes

You may also find it beneficial to:

You can also improve your body’s response to leptin by exercising regularly and sticking to a suitable sleep schedule.

Check out: Tips for a better night’s sleep »

Outlook

Leptin resistance can be difficult to detect. If you’re having a hard time losing weight or feel that your dietary habits are taking a turn for the worse, talk to your doctor. You may be experiencing leptin resistance.

A simple blood test is all it takes to determine whether your leptin levels are in the right place. If your leptin levels are fine, your doctor may continue testing to see if another underlying issue is contributing to your symptoms.

Once they make a diagnosis, your doctor will work with you to develop an effective treatment plan. It’s possible to reverse leptin resistance through diet and exercise.

Keep reading: Foods that reduce inflammation »

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