Leptin & Leptin Resistance Explained: Symptoms and Treatment

Learn about leptin resistance: its causes, symptoms, and how to improve it through diet and lifestyle changes. Discover how to support your health.

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
May 17, 2024
May 4, 2023
— Updated:
May 5, 2023

Table of Contents

Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells and plays an essential role in regulating hunger and fullness cues. It prevents overeating and controls the body’s use of stored energy. With leptin resistance, this signaling process becomes disrupted, leading to increased hunger, decreased energy expenditure, and weight gain. All of which can negatively impact metabolic health.

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What is Leptin? How Does it Affect Weight?

The leptin signaling pathway is activated when fat cells release leptin into the bloodstream. Leptin travels to the brain, where it binds to specific receptors in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that regulates appetite and energy balance. When leptin binds to these receptors, it tells the brain that the body has enough energy stores and decreases hunger and food intake.

In addition to appetite regulation, leptin is also involved in regulating energy expenditure. Leptin signals the brain to use more energy, which can help to maintain a healthy body weight.

Leptin levels are mainly controlled by the amount of fat stored in the body. Fat cells, also known as adipocytes, produce leptin in proportion to the amount of fat they store. As the size and number of fat cells increase, they produce more leptin.1

When the body has excess fat stores, leptin levels increase, telling the brain that the body has enough energy stores and reduces hunger. When fat stores are low, leptin levels decrease, signaling to the brain that the body needs to consume more energy and decrease energy expenditure.

The regulation of leptin levels is a complex process that involves feedback mechanisms between fat cells, the brain, and other hormones. For example, insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas in response to food intake, can stimulate leptin production and release from fat cells.1

Other factors that can influence leptin levels and sensitivity include stress, sleep deprivation, exercise, and certain medications.

What are Normal Leptin Levels and How Can They Be Measured?

Leptin levels can be measured by a blood test. However, this test is not routinely ordered and is usually ordered when a person has obesity and continues to have excessive hunger. 

Normal blood leptin levels may vary based on the lab you go to. In general, normal ranges for leptin levels include:3

Women: 0.5 - 15.2 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL).

Men: 0.5 - 12.5 ng/mL

Several factors can affect leptin levels, including diet, stress, exercise, estrogen, and the activity of other hormones.4,5,6

What Happens if Leptin Levels Are High?

Since increased fat cells directly affect the amount of leptin produced and released into the bloodstream, obesity can lead to higher levels of leptin in the blood. Over time, this can decrease the body’s sensitivity to leptin, a condition known as leptin resistance.

Other conditions often associated with hyperleptinemia include:

  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease7
  • Rabson–Mendenhall syndrome8
  • Neurodegenerative disorders9
  • Depression10
  • Food addiction11

What if Levels are Too Low?

It is possible, but rare, to have suboptimal leptin levels (hypoleptinemia). Low leptin levels are often associated with congenital leptin deficiency, a genetic condition that prevents adipose tissue from producing leptin.12

Without enough leptin, the body thinks it has no body fat, which signals intense, uncontrolled hunger and increased food intake. Congenital leptin deficiency often results in obesity in children and delayed puberty. It’s also associated with the following conditions:

  • Frequent bacterial infections
  • Hyperinsulinemia (excess insulin production)
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Dyslipidemia (an imbalance of lipids, including cholesterol and triglycerides)
  • Hypogonadotropic hypogonadism (low sex hormone levels)

What is Leptin Resistance? 

Leptin resistance is a condition where the body becomes less responsive to the hormone leptin. When the body becomes resistant to leptin, the brain no longer receives the signal that says it has enough energy stores and needs to stop eating, which can lead to overeating and weight gain. This condition often occurs when fat stores are higher than normal and can occur in people who are obese or have other health problems.13

Symptoms of Leptin Resistance

Leptin resistance can have a range of symptoms, including14:

  • Increased Appetite and Excessive Cravings
    Leptin is responsible for suppressing appetite, so when the body becomes resistant to leptin, it can lead to an increase in appetite and food cravings.
  • Weight Gain or Obesity
    Leptin resistance can contribute to weight gain, as the body doesn't receive the signal to stop eating, and the metabolism may slow down.
  • Difficulty Losing Weight
    Due to altered hormone levels and lack of response to leptin, it can be difficult for people with leptin resistance to lose weight.
  • Fatigue
    People with leptin resistance may feel tired and sluggish as their metabolism slows down.
  • Insulin Resistance
    Leptin resistance is often associated with insulin resistance, which can lead to high blood sugar levels and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Poor Immune Function
    Leptin resistance can also affect the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to fight infections and illnesses.

It's important to note that many of these symptoms can also be caused by other factors, so it's important to speak with a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

weight with a meter

What Are the Causes of Leptin Resistance?

The exact causes of leptin resistance are not fully understood, but there are several factors that are thought to contribute to its development. Some of the main causes of leptin resistance include:15

  • Obesity
    Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for developing leptin resistance. As fat cells increase in size and number, they produce more leptin, which can lead to a decrease in leptin sensitivity.
  • Inflammation
    Chronic inflammation in the body can interfere with leptin signaling and contribute to the development of leptin resistance.
  • Genetics
    Some people may be genetically predisposed to developing leptin resistance, which can be passed down through families.
  • Sleep Deprivation
    Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep has been linked to leptin resistance and increased appetite.
  • Certain Medications
    Some medications, such as steroids, can interfere with leptin signaling and contribute to the development of leptin resistance.
  • Aging
    As we age, our bodies may become less responsive to leptin, which can contribute to the development of leptin resistance.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Keep reading: </strong> <a href="/blog/why-diets-work-but-the-weight-comes-back">Why Diets Work, But the Weight Comes Back</a>.</p>

How to Diagnose and Treat Leptin Resistance 

To date, there are no standardized tests that diagnose leptin resistance. Doctors may further investigate the possibility of leptin resistance in people who are overweight or obese and exhibit symptoms such as increased appetite and difficulty losing weight.

Clinical evaluation, medical history, and blood tests are often used in combination to diagnose leptin resistance. In some cases, imaging studies, such as MRI or CT scans, may be used to evaluate body fat distribution.15.

The most common forms of treatment for leptin resistance include lifestyle changes and medication. Lifestyle modifications may include changes to diet and exercise habits, as well as making improvements to stress management and sleep quality. 

A healthy diet rich in whole foods and low in processed, high-fat foods can help lower inflammation and improve metabolic function. Regular physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise, can help to improve leptin sensitivity and reduce insulin resistance.16,17

Diabetes medications, like metformin, and certain weight loss medications, like liraglutide, have also been shown to improve leptin sensitivity in some people with leptin resistance. In some cases, hormone replacement therapy may address underlying hormonal imbalances contributing to leptin resistance.18,19

Treatment for leptin resistance should be individualized based on the patient’s needs and medical history. A healthcare professional can help to develop an appropriate treatment plan that addresses the underlying causes of leptin resistance and helps to improve metabolic function.

How to Reverse Leptin Resistance Naturally 

  • Eat a Balanced Diet 
    Consuming too many highly processed foods may contribute to the development of leptin resistance.
  • Exercise Regularly
    Physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle may play a role in excess body weight and leptin resistance.
  • Get Enough Quality Sleep 
    Poor sleep quality is associated with leptin abnormalities.
  • Manage Your Stress
    Long-term stress increases cortisol and may cause chronic inflammation, which is associated with several metabolic disorders, including leptin resistance.20

Leptin Resistance Diet: What to Eat More + What to Limit

  1. Increase Fiber Intake
    Eating a diet rich in fiber from complex carbs can help reduce inflammation and improve gut health, both of which are important for leptin sensitivity. Foods that are high in fiber include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts.
  1. Limit Processed and High-Fat Foods
    Processed and high-fat foods can contribute to inflammation and insulin resistance, making it more difficult for the body to respond to leptin. Avoiding or limiting these foods can help improve metabolic function and leptin sensitivity.
  1. Include Protein in Every Meal
    Including protein at every meal
    can help to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce insulin resistance, which can improve leptin sensitivity. Protein also increases the feeling of satiety. Good protein sources include lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and plant-based options such as tofu and legumes.
  1. Eat Regular Meals and Avoid Skipping Meals
    Skipping meals can disrupt hunger and satiety signals and lead to overeating later in the day. Eating regular meals and snacks can help to regulate these signals and prevent overeating.
  1. Stay Hydrated
    Drinking plenty of water can help improve metabolic function and reduce inflammation, which is important for leptin sensitivity. Aim for at least 8-10 glasses of water per day, and avoid sugary drinks and excessive amounts of alcohol.

Frequently Asked Questions

delicious healthy food rich in fiber and antioxidants

How Can I Raise Leptin Levels?

You can raise your leptin levels by practicing healthy lifestyle behaviors, including eating a healthy diet with protein at every meal, exercising regularly, getting enough quality sleep, and managing stress. 

What Are Foods High in Leptin? 

There are no foods that contain leptin itself, but some foods may help improve leptin sensitivity and support healthy leptin levels. These include:

Protein-Rich Foods

Foods high in protein can help regulate blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity, which may improve leptin sensitivity over time. Good protein sources include lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and plant-based options, such as tofu and legumes.

Foods High in Fiber

Foods high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, can help reduce inflammation and improve gut health, both of which are important for leptin sensitivity.

Omega-3 Rich Foods

Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation and improve metabolic function, both of which may improve leptin sensitivity. Good sources of omega-3s include fatty fish (such as salmon and sardines), flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.

Foods Rich in Antioxidants

Antioxidants can help reduce inflammation and improve metabolic function, which is important for leptin sensitivity. Good sources of antioxidants include brightly colored fruits and vegetables, such as berries, leafy greens, and bell peppers.

Fermented Foods

Fermented foods, such as kefir, yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut, can help improve gut health and reduce inflammation, which may improve leptin sensitivity over time.

It's important to note that while these foods may help support healthy leptin levels, no one food or nutrient is a magic bullet for leptin sensitivity or weight management. 

What Foods Should I Avoid if I Have Leptin Resistance?

If you have leptin resistance, you should avoid highly-processed foods, foods high in added sugar, sugar-sweetened beverages, high-fat foods, and alcohol. 

Learn More About Health and Hormonal Balance with Signos’ Expert Advice

Signos is a great resource for expert advice on nutrition and healthy eating. Signos has a team of registered dietitians who compile evidence-based nutrition information to help you improve your health and wellness. Check out the resources here.

Signos CGM empowers you to improve your health by keeping track of your diet, exercise, sleep habits, and blood sugar. Knowledge is power, and a CGM can give you specific information about how your habits affect your health. 

Find out if Signos is a good fit for you by taking a quick quiz.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more: </strong> <a href="/blog/what-is-the-best-water-to-drink">What is The Best Water to Drink For Your Health?</a>.</p>

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References

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About the author

Victoria Whittington earned her Bachelor of Science in Food and Nutrition from the University of Alabama and has over 10 years of experience in the health and fitness industry.

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