Leptin is the Lorax

I used to think my fat had a will of its own; now I know it does.

In the famous story by Dr. Seuss, the Lorax speaks for the Truffula trees. Similarly, in our bodies a hormone called leptin speaks for your fat. Leptin gives the brain an intelligence report about the state of your fat and how things look for the future. Leptin looks at the big picture and hates quickie crash diets. Leptin helped humans survive winter and famine.

How fat works with the brain
We tend to think of organs as a single object with a defined shape, like a liver or even skin. The collective name for the fat in your body is called adipose tissue. It has a number of important functions, and it also has what I call feelings and demands. When you don’t treat your fat right it often responds by becoming sullen, swollen and unresponsive. If you want to get light, learn to treat your fat right!

Fat functions to insulate the body from heat loss by forming a layer under the skin. Visceral fat surrounds the internal organs, allowing them to shift and move in a healthy manner. Fat is a useful way to store energy for a long time. It doesn’t require refrigeration, and it is light and usually well distributed. Women have significantly more body fat than men. In nature women with inadequate body fat are infertile. Also, fatty tissue, because it doesn’t have a lot of blood circulating through it, is a safer place for the body to stash toxic chemicals so they don’t cause trouble.

Where you tend to accumulate and store fat is determined by your hormones, not your choice of exercise machines. Hormones are affected by many things in our environment, including diet, stress, and toxic exposures. There are also a strong genetic and gender influence on hormone secretion, which in turn affects how much fat you carry and how it is distributed. In the laboratory we can study individual hormones; in the body hormones are always interacting with each other and the brain to maintain homeostatic balance.

Primitive brain seeks homeostasis
Homeostasis is our response to a constantly changing world. The brain uses the information from sensors reacting to the external world and internal milieu to form a plan of action to achieve a single specific goal: restore homeostatic balance.

Led by the thinking part of your brain, you might go on a diet, take a pill or team up with a personal trainer. But the primitive part of your brain makes its own decision. It might decide that the future doesn’t look too bright and you need to be fatter. So it will have you experience powerful emotions and make you want to eat. Even if you win the battle for a few weeks and lose some weight, the primitive part of the brain will activate hundreds of processes so it eventually wins the war and achieves homeostasis – by restoring the lost weight.

Make an ally of your brain
The winning strategy is to make your brain your ally. Both your brain and you share a common goal of a healthy, vital, attractive body with an appropriate amount of fat. So, alter your environment and behavior so the brain decides to store less fat.

Many people today eat like there is no tomorrow because prehistoric impulses in their brains know it’s true. In modern industrial society, most of us have shelter and warm clothes. But our bodies still carry the genetic triggers to increase fat when signs of late summer warn that winter is coming. These are the ancient signs of the endless summer that is modern life: Lights plus sugar plus stress signals that winter is coming, so you need to eat sugars (sweets, fruit, starches and processed food) until they are all gone, otherwise you will die.

The best way to reassure your brain is to make permanent changes in how you live. See my forthcoming book Evolutionary Eating: How We Got Fat and 7 Simple Fixes.

These comprehensive, long-term changes send powerful signals to our brains, unlike a crash diet and occasional rote visits to the gym.

Above all, stick to it. The ancient wisdom in your brain will eventually judge that it’s safe to store less fat.

DrTheresa.com, Theresa Nesbitt and her publications provide general information on health and wellness. This general information is not a substitute for health advice and medical care from physicians who know you. Please talk to them before making significant changes in your lifestyle. Complete Terms of Use and Disclaimers