Leptin Resistance: Symptoms, Causes + How To Heal From This Weight Loss Resistance Hormone Problem

Leptin Resistance

You don’t have to search very hard to find some ubiquitous fitness center or personal coach promoting their “guaranteed” methods to lose weight or get fit. Yet somehow we are the heaviest, sickest generation in human history. In functional medicine we know the truth: weight gain is a symptom, not the cause of health problems. We have to get healthy to lose weight, not lose weight to get healthy.

If you can’t seem to lose weight despite exercising and eating a diverse diet of nutritious food, you probably have weight loss resistance, which is a sign that something more is going on than a simple lack of willpower or the occasional indulgence. Bodies are designed to maintain a steady, healthful weight, so if yours isn’t, chances are the problem won’t be solved by the next fad diet. Instead, I suggest making health a priority. Only then will you be able to lose weight and look and feel great, without all the effort and deprivation. I’ve seen it thousands of times in my practice: weight loss is a natural by-product of radiant health.


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What is Leptin Resistance?

One of the most common reasons my patients have a difficult time losing weight is because of something called leptin resistance. Leptin resistance is a type of hormonal imbalance, and it makes losing weight a serious struggle. Here’s how it works. Leptin is a hormone produced in the fat cells, which are not just inactive tissue but an active part of your hormonal system.

One of leptin’s jobs is to tell your brain to use the body’s fat stores for energy. Leptin resistance occurs when the hypothalamic cells in the brain stop recognizing leptin’s signals. The brain doesn’t perceive that enough food has come in, and reads that as starvation. If this happens to you, your brain will turn on all the hunger signals it can, to make up for the falsely perceived food deficit. Everything you eat goes straight into fat storage, without being used for energy, making the problem even worse. Your brain is saving up for the coming famine, even though there isn’t any famine. This, my friends, is weight-loss resistance. You could look at food and gain weight, if you are experiencing leptin resistance.

This hormone imbalance is one of the most common hidden drivers of weight gain that I find in patients. It’s near impossible to turn this condition around, yourself. You could live in the gym and eat like a rabbit and still have trouble losing weight. Leptin resistance treatment must be carefully tailored to your unique biology. Through a functional medicine approach, we are able to identify the root of the problem in order to suggest which lifestyle habits and diet alterations will be most beneficial for you.

Here's how you develop leptin resistance

So what triggers leptin resistance in the first place? The short answer: inflammation. Chronic inflammation causes all kinds of problems in the human body, and leptin resistance is one of them. Inflammation dulls the brain’s leptin receptor sites and it is this impaired signaling (1) that triggers the problem. The body doesn’t perceive the leptin that is already there, so it produces more and more in an attempt to get the message through to the brain. As if trouble losing and keeping weight off wasn’t enough, high leptin levels are also associated with fatigue and histamine intolerance.

Leptin resistance symptoms

How do you know if you have leptin resistance? If you answer “yes” to more than one of these, I suggest asking your functional medicine doctor to test you for leptin resistance:

  • Is it difficult for you to lose weight?
  • When you go on a diet, can you drop some pounds but still look flabby?
  • Do you hold onto weight in your midsection, no matter how much you try to lose it?
  • Do you have trouble keeping weight off?
  • Are you constantly hungry?
  • Do you crave sugary foods and get “hangry” if you don’t get your fix?
  • Are you stressed out a lot?
  • Do you have high triglycerides?
  • Do you have high blood pressure?

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So how do you fix leptin resistance? Similarly to most health journeys, leptin resistance treatment starts with the basics of reducing stress, getting good sleep, and eating the right foods. We often sabotage our health by ignoring these important foundational blocks, so while it may require some extra attention to build healthier habits, it will be infinitely worth it in reversing the frustrating effects of leptin resistance, and improving your overall health. When it comes to leptin resistance, medications will never quite get to the root of the problem like optimizing these fundamental parts of your lifestyle will.

1. Find out for sure

To determine if a patient truly has leptin resistance, I run a simple blood test to measure leptin levels. Optimal fasting leptin levels should be 4 to 6 ng/dL. The reason why this lab is not commonly run in mainstream medicine? There’s no medication for it. If there was – believe me – everyone would be tested for high leptin.

2. Clean up your sleep habits

DVR Jimmy Fallon, turn off your smartphone, and get yourself to sleep! People with poor sleep habits and altered (2) circadian rhythms are more likely to be leptin resistant.

3. Don't eat too late

For better leptin balance, avoid the late-night snacks. Eating after 8 p.m. has been associated with higher leptin resistance levels and more weight gain in various research studies.

4. Calm down your life

Stress is no bueno for your health in so many ways, and a high stress level with its associated high cortisol can definitely increase inflammation and subsequently, trigger leptin receptor failure and increased (3) production of leptin – just one more reason to bring some mindfulness and self-care into your life.

5. Get your omega-3s

A healthy intake of omega-3 fatty acids from wild-caught fish is one of the best ways to bring down inflammation and balance leptin levels. Plant-based omega-3 precursor fats such as flax oil can also be useful, but fish-based omega-3 has a much higher bioavailability, especially for people already struggling with leptin resistance.

6. Eat to subdue inflammation

What foods should you avoid for leptin resistance? Since inflammation is one of the main causative factors in leptin resistance, eat more anti-inflammatory foods whenever you can, and steer clear of inflammatory foods like deep fried or processed foods (especially processed meat), white flour and refined carbs like snack cakes and other bakery items, sugary foods and drinks, alcohol, and even red meats.

Some common anti-inflammatory foods for a leptin resistance diet include: berries, fish, avocados, broccoli, green tea, turmeric, dark chocolate, & extra virgin olive oil. It would also be wise to avoid inflammatory foods like processed meats, fried foods, refined carbs, and sugary drinks. Try out my one-day diet to kickstart your leptin resistance reversal efforts.

How can functional medicine make a difference?

While these suggestions can be helpful in the overall elimination of leptin resistance, it is important to meet with your functional medicine doctor to make sure that your treatment is exactly the right fit for you, so you can have the most effective and beneficial results possible. And who knows, there may be additional root cause factors that need to be addressed in order to support your overall health goals - after all, the body is a big machine made of many codependent parts. My team and I offer an in-depth exploration of symptoms and labs, accompanied by a treatment plan tailored to your unique needs.

Are you ready to beat your leptin resistance and finally achieve your health goals? Schedule your telehealth consultation today!

As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.

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  1. Zhou, Yingjiang, and Liangyou Rui. “Leptin signaling and leptin resistance.” Frontiers of medicine vol. 7,2 (2013): 207-22. doi:10.1007/s11684-013-0263-5
  2. Qiao-Ping Wang, Yong Qi Lin, Lei Zhang et al. "Sucralose Promotes Food Intake through NPY and a Neural Fasting Response" Cell Metabolism  Volume 24, Issue 1, P75-90, July 12, 2016 DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2016.06.010
  3. Sominsky, Luba, and Sarah J Spencer. “Eating behavior and stress: a pathway to obesity.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 5 434. 13 May. 2014, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00434

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Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.

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