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SATURDAY’S CHILD: Just ghrelin

Tony Deyal

SATURDAY’S CHILD: Just ghrelin

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Whoever said life has its ups and downs was referring more to my weight than my fate. I am a yo-yo or hi-lo dieter, constantly up and down the food and supermarket chains.

Recently, when I returned to Trinidad, I found that my waistline was within inches of my chest size and not too far from my height. Given the prospect and embarrassment of having a bed that was wider than it was long, I decided to use my new job to lose weight. Since there was no washroom in or near my office, my first step, as well as my second, third and others in arithmetic succession, was to use a downstairs washroom and try to run up and down. If a person who is more than a little crazy is a “nutcase”, my choice of exercise made me a “staircase”.

 I have always wondered why I can lose weight quickly and then regain it even faster. If I count up all the weight I lost I would be invisible. Now I’ve discovered that there’s no glory hallelujah in why sometimes I’m down and more times I’m up in the kilogram count. Science has come to my rescue and told me that it is not my fault. A hormone named “ghrelin”, and not the devil or his food cake, makes me do it.

According to Denise Grady of the New York Times News Service, “Ghrelin is one of a complex array of natural substances that carry messages between the brain and the digestive system. Secreted by specialised cells in the stomach and the upper part of the small intestine, ghrelin acts on the brain. It is the first natural appetite stimulant found to be made outside the brain.”

While my East Indian ancestry may have something to do with my pattern of weight loss, it is interesting to note that ghrelin, although discovered by Japanese researchers in 1995, owes its name to a Hindi word “ghre” meaning “grow”. Based on the evidence, my surname should have been “Ghreyal” instead of “Deyal”. Ghrelin stimulates the pituitary gland to release growth hormone. It makes you hungry, slows down your metabolism and reduces your body’s ability to burn fat. What is worse is that the more you diet the higher your level of ghrelin rises. People who got ghrelin injections ate about a third more than they would normally eat. According to an editorial in The New England Journal Of Medicine, “Weight reduction brought about by caloric restriction caused ghrelin levels to increase, suggesting that ghrelin might contribute to the drive to eat that makes long-term success with dieting so rare.” According to Dr David E. Cummings of the University of Washington who headed a team of researchers studying the impact of ghrelin, “It’s well known that your body works against you when you try to lose weight.  What’s new is the possibility that a rise in ghrelin is the way it’s done.”

 What Dr Cummings and his researchers found out is that ghrelin rose sharply before meals and fell shortly after meals.  This demonstrated quite clearly that it causes you to feel hungry and makes you want to eat. After the people in the experiment lost an average of 17 per cent of their body weight, ghrelin output rose about 25 per cent. In fact, after they lost the weight, their ghrelin levels were almost as high as when they started the diet. It seems that in our hunting and gathering days as a Stone Age species, we had periods of feasting followed by famine. Fasting was compulsory. The people with the most fat survived. Evolution ensured that the children and children’s children of the original Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble would have big Bamm-Bamms and other progeny. That’s the bedrock issue.

There are some options like “blockers” or the use of leptin, an appetite suppressant. There is also a hormone, peptide YY3-36 or PYY, which switches off the urge to eat. The most popular route in Trinidad these days is gastric bypass surgery or stomach stapling. In gastric bypass, surgeons sew off all but a tiny pocket at the top of the stomach. One of the interesting outcomes is a reduction in ghrelin levels. People who have this type of surgery generally continue to lose weight.

I plan to bypass the bypass or to pass on it. I will stick to the tried, although not entirely true. According to the researchers, the combination of diet and exercise, done regularly, can help me to lose about 20 per cent of body-weight. I can maintain the weight loss if I successfully fool my ghrelin by not acting as if I am starving. This is easier said than done. Under stress, we all revert to our comfort foods, behaviours and zones. I am trying bowling in the cricket nets and to my son. Something seems to be working since I am now below 200 pounds and my waistline is lethal – a .38 special edging closer to a .357 which, though a magnum, makes me a sleek son of a gun. Until the ghrelin stages a comeback and I run out of ammunition.

• Tony Deyal was last seen saying that if you want to look young and thin, hang around fat people.