Woman sleeping bed tired

What does melatonin have to do with fighting obesity?

We all know melatonin as the sleep hormone. But what does this common  remedy for jet lag have to do with fighting obesity? In order to understand how this hormone can be harnessed to defeat the enemy, we have to examine what it is that regulates the amount of food we eat. Here the principal hormone is insulin.

Insulin in action

When we consume carbohydrates found in cereals, grains, fruit, vegetables and salads, which ultimately are broken down in our digestive tract to smaller carbohydrates or sugars known as glucose and fructose, or we eat fats sourced in nuts, seeds, fish, butter, milk and avocado, insulin sees to it that these essential nutrients are transported to our liver, muscle and fat cells, where they are either used to manufacture energy or are stored, providing a ready reservoir for energy production as required.

Insulin is concerned that we not only have enough resources to immediately furnish us with the energy we need to function, but it also sees to it that we have reserves of glucose and fat ready and waiting to be used as an energy source should we be entering times of scarcity, when these are no longer freely available. What insulin also does is instruct the brain to tell us we have had enough to eat. Appetite centres in our brains are switched off when insulin informs them that further consumption is no longer necessary.

In summary, insulin ensures that food and principally glucose are employed to create energy, that glucose and fat are set aside so we can tap into these resources on demand and that the brain is told to terminate eating behaviour when this activity ceases to serve us.

At night melatonin turns down the rheostat on insulin making this an inopportune time to consume large amounts of food.

The moment you get up in the morning insulin sets to work ensuring that whatever you imbibe is driven into your muscle and fat cells. The peak of insulin activity actually occurs earlier in the day so that by nightfall its functions are truncated.

Our two major energy sources are glucose and fat. Insulin determines that we employ glucose to produce energy rather than fat. Our muscle cells tend to prefer fat to satisfy their energy needs. Insulin wants to override this, viewing glucose utilisation as a better option. The more we eat, the more we engage insulin, the less fat we burn. Therefore it would seem that regularly grazing small amounts of food to stimulate metabolism, often employed by weight-loss consultants, would appear to be unwise advice.

We are no longer hunter-gatherers frantically cavorting around the savannahs desperately in search of our next feed, so the amount of energy we need to derive from the food we eat, to accommodate our mostly sedentary lifestyle, has considerably diminished. What hasn’t changed, though, is our prehistoric genes.

Our DNA is petrified of the possibility that we might enter times of scarcity, so our cells are programmed to put things away for a rainy day. The more you eat and the less active you are, the more you store. However, this storage capacity has a limit and insulin’s capacity to endlessly pour fat into fat cells has its tipping point.

What bloated fat cells do is assemble masses of inflammatory cytokines, harmful molecules that get in insulin’s way, preventing it from executing its vital functions, as well as undermining the activity of other hormones. Instead of fat freely accessing the cells in which it would normally reside care of insulin’s custodianship, it now pours into the circulation, further compromising the workings of insulin. When insulin ceases to fulfil its duties, energy is not engineered efficiently, our brains aren’t instructed to terminate our eating behaviour and we don’t effectively burn fat.

With ready access to endless amounts of food and the wiring of the brain that governs our eating behaviour becoming unhinged, compounded by the fact that insulin is no longer able to successfully orchestrate energy production, we are compelled to eat even more in a futile attempt to re-energise a sluggish metabolism. Herein is the root cause of the obesity tsunami.

Enter melatonin

Melatonin might be the saviour to deliver us from obesity-driven extinction. Melatonin is the master hormone, the conductor that masterminds the behaviour of all our hormones. It is especially solicitous of insulin. Melatonin ensures that we make sufficient amounts of insulin, as well as assisting insulin so it can execute its function.

Our bodies need to be exposed to some natural light during the day and optimal darkness at night to make ample supplies of melatonin. When the sun rises, melatonin goes to work, happily helping insulin do its energy-creating and fuel-storing duties. At night, melatonin turns down the rheostat on insulin, making this an inopportune time to consume large amounts of food. Our natural rhythms and our ability to operate with metabolic impunity are determined by how much we follow the immutable laws governing the executive functions of insulin and melatonin.

Suffice to say we have turned nature on its head. We need to revert to a time when melatonin and insulin were maximally operational. Aside from eating less and less often, one of the ways you can do this is by significantly reducing your food consumption after dark.

Michael Elstein

Michael Elstein

Michael Elstein is a Fellow of the Australian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. Anti-ageing medicine is his current passion and he is the author of Eternal Health and You Have The Power, which are available as e-books through his website.

Dr Elstein has just attained a Masters in Nutrition from RMIT university located in Melbourne. He treats those who suffer from fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders and menopausal dysfunction. He utilises diet, nutritional therapy, hormonal interventions and herbal remedies.

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