Ghrelin: What to Know About the “Hunger Hormone”

Updated: Oct. 11, 2023

The "hunger hormone" (aka ghrelin) is vital for our bodies to function. So, should you try to change your levels to shed pounds?

Hormones can affect just about everything in your body, including your appetite and weight. Ghrelin, the hunger hormone, can have a huge impact on how hungry you feel. It also affects how much you eat, which may be why it gets a bad rep. If you’re having a hard time losing weight, your levels of ghrelin can play a role. The hormone itself isn’t bad at all—it’s vital for your health.

“Ghrelin, also known as the “hunger hormone,” keeps you fed and nourished. Without it, we would starve,” Madelyn Larouche, a registered dietitian from North Carolina, tells The Healthy @Reader’s Digest.

What does ghrelin do to the body?

The hunger hormone triggers your appetite, and typically goes down after you eat. Some people with obesity have high levels even after they eat a meal, and therefore may eat more food. That’s why the concept of “too much ghrelin” is often linked to weight gain.

It doesn’t just tell your brain that it’s time for a meal, though.

“In the average person, regulating ghrelin levels is essential to maintain a healthy appetite and body weight,” Parnacott says.

Ghrelin is also responsible for helping your pituitary gland to release growth hormones. It can manage how your body produces insulin and help it control sugars. It also contributes to metabolism, instructing your body how to move food from the stomach to small intestines.

Ghrelin also plays a role to control the release of insulin and even has a part in protecting cardiovascular health.

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Does ghrelin increase fat storage?

It promotes fat storage in your body, which isn’t a bad thing. Some research indicates that it may cause weight gain and fat buildup. Regardless, storing fat in your body isn’t a bad thing (think about how cavemen survived).

If you’re concerned about your body storing too much, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor what you can do to keep your levels in the healthy zone (or just keep reading on).

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What about leptin?

Don’t confuse ghrelin with leptin. Leptin is an appetite suppressant; ghrelin boosts your appetite.

“[Ghrelin] is another crucial player in appetite regulation,” Stewart Parnacott, a Georgia-based nurse practitioner and nurse anesthetist, and instructor at Baylor College of Medicine, tells The Healthy.

If you’re struggling with weight management, understanding how these hormones operate can help, Parnacott says.

“Empowering individuals with knowledge about these hormonal imbalances can lead to more informed decision-making and pave the way for tailored approaches to achieve optimal health and well-being,” Parnacott says.

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How can I reduce ghrelin?

Most people are interested to know if there’s a way to change their levels of ghrelin. Low levels are tied to certain health ailments, while too much is tied to anorexia, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease and muscle deterioration, to name a few.

So, keeping healthy levels can help your overall wellness.

“Many people may not be aware that ghrelin levels fluctuate throughout the day, with the highest levels typically observed before meals, signaling hunger to the brain,” Parnacott says.

Levels increase and decrease depending on how much you eat—and what you eat. Levels may go down when you’re properly hydrated, and may go up if you’re not getting enough liquid. Getting enough fluids is one way to keep levels optimal.

The Healthy @Reader’s Digest’s Medical Review Board co-chair Latoya Julce RN, BSN says, “I inform all my clients to chug water; many times I mistake my dehydration with hunger. When properly hydrated, I look leaner, have more energy and rarely over eat.

A high-protein diet (that can include healthy carbs) can lower levels more compared to high-fat foods.

Lifestyle plays a role in keeping your ghrelin at optimal levels. Getting enough sleep, managing stress and opting for a balanced diet can help support ideal levels in your body.

“Most folks don’t realize that when you experience chaotic and inconsistent eating patterns, your body stops making ghrelin in an attempt to conserve energy and survive,” Larouche says.

In other words, your body is really smart, and if you’re not nourishing it regularly, it will respond by slowing down the metabolism and stopping the production of ghrelin, she adds.

Doctors can check ghrelin levels, but it’s not something they regularly do, Parnacott says.

If you want to keep your levels intact, eat regularly.

“Your metabolism is best supported when you’re eating every three to four hours, so when this is happening, your ghrelin is functioning optimally.