Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Leptin and Insulin: or How I Raised my Homeostasis and Got Fat with Thoughts about How I Might Lower it Again.

I've been reading a great deal these past few days about the endocrine system and how it affects weight. Interesting stuff but very frustrating and not all that easy to understand. Nothing in my background has prepared me to understand, let alone analyse scientific studies.  (That would be a worthy adult education class, don't you think? Well, maybe not.)

So, as far as I understand things, this is the way it goes:

Individuals are generally in a state of homeostasis with respect to their weight. That is, no matter how many calories they tend to consume, their bodies will react to keep them within a particular weight range. (If you eat too little, the body tends not to want to move very much, eat too much, the body wants to move more. Heat and the immune system factor into this somehow too.)

Ok. So, the theory goes, individuals who have gained weight have somehow "broken" their bodies' homeostasis mechanisms--or they have overridden them in some way until, at long last, the individual eventually stops gaining weight and settles in for the winter, so to speak, at some new, higher weight.

From my own experience, I'm betting that pregnancy "overrides" the homeostasis system. Menopause, too. I'm betting stress contributes...and likely sleep deprivation.

But simply overeating won't account for it--as it doesn't in those "skinny" individuals who were force fed a lot of calories for a period of time and then, left on their own, lost all the added weight.

This scenario is invoked for the overweight person who tries to lose weight permanently and fails. The fat person restricts calories for a period of time and loses weight--but as soon as the restriction is over, begins to gain it all back. That presumes, however, that once you're fat, your homeostasis changes irrevocably and it will always and forever remain at that high number on the scales.

But why should that be true? And even if it is true for me, now, why does it have to be true for me, forever?

And I say this, assuming that it is true that once you have  your "fat cells" they never, ever, go away: they simply shrink when they're empty. I have no idea why this "fact" is true--if it even is a fact.

You see, once upon a time, I was 134 pounds. I maintained my weight within 134-140 for years and years. Then, I was 155, 165. I got pregnant. My weight the day before my son wasdelivered was 200 pounds. I dropped to about 175 or so afterwards? We're going back 15 years here, so it's hard to remember, but I can probably look it up. Then, a few years later, I got pregnant again, this time with my daughter.

After that pregnancy, in 2000, I weighed about 180 or so. I did some Christian based weight loss thing and by the Spring of 2001 got down to 165. (I have a picture. I looked great.)

But, I gained the weight back and settled in at about 190-200.

Then, four years ago, on October 22, 2008, I quit smoking and by January, I had gained 29 pounds.

Next, I went through an incredibly stressful period and I gained another ten to fifteen pounds.

I have maintained my weight at 245-250 for quite some time. Then from May to September 2009, I made a concentrated effort to follow the "eat less, move more" paradigm and lost 40 pounds. They found me again, obviously.

Throughout all of this, of course, I have been getting steadily older and I'm well into middle age. I'll be 49 on my next birthday in January.

So, my homeostasis is about 245-250 right now.

I'm curious, though. The gain was gradual with many stops along the way where it seems I established new "set-points." Why can't I do that in reverse? What if a plateau is just a new found homeostasis? What if instead of dreading them, we actively seek them? How much weight can one lose and not regain? Is there a percentage?

One caveat: I do think it is viatllay important that one does not lose the weight merely by eating less and moving more. It seems clear that calorie restriction is not enough to effect the way hormones work. That is, if homeostasis at a lower weight is the desired result, then one has to eat in such a way that one resets or  recalibrates one's hormones. So far, the only diet plan I've come across that promises to do this is the whole30. Eliminating grains, legumes, dairy, seed oils, artificial additives, and sugar from one's diet and adding lots of saturated fat gives insulin a chance to settle down as it were. Insulin receptors that had fallen asleep in the flood of carbohydrates at every meal are given a chance to "wake up" and leptin can once again function "normally" --whatever that means. But I bet it means that your body will begin to lose fat, not just from the cells but hopefully the fat cells themselves will implode and self-destruct. Leptin is the body's communication system: and once it is fully operational again, (because insulin resistence is no longer silencing its voice) I like to imagine it bellowing at the brain: "Enough, already! Enough! We need to get this body moving, there's enough stored energy here to build a city! Let's get moving!"

What if I follow the pattern of my weight gain on the way down? That is, what if I eat and excercise to lose 10% of my weight--that's 25 pounds and then stop and maintain once I reach 225. How long should I stay there before moving on? What should my carb intake be to maintain?

Unfortunately, it took me 15 years to gain a hundred pounds. I don't want to take another 15 to lose it! But I do wonder if a slow gradual weight loss would work--because long term weight loss won't be sustainable unless there's a way of acheiving and establishing homeostasis at that new, hard-won lower weight.


  1. That was a really interesting post! I had to read it very slowly, to take it all in, but it was very informative. I'm really interested in this weight loss journey of yours.

  2. Thank you Carol-Anne! One of things they recommend on the whole30 is that you do not weigh yourself. I neglected that advice the first 30days, but this month, I'm trying to. It's hard, though! I know that I have because the yoga pants I bought two weeks ago are just about falling off of me. I'm so curious to know what I weigh now.