We have studied the effect of food and fasting on circulating leptin levels in 20 subjects of normal body mass index (BMI range 18-25) and in a group of 12 moderately-severely obese subjects (BMI range 34-61). We also studied the effect of food and fasting in a patient both before and after the successful removal of a pancreatic insulinoma as a model of excess insulin secretion.
Mean leptin levels were significantly higher in the obese than in the lean group (42.7 +/- 3.41 vs 5.35 +/- 1.55 micrograms/l, mean +/- SEM; P < 0.001), and showed a positive correlation with body mass index (r = +0.71; P < 0.001). Frequent (every 20 minutes) sampling for 3 hours after food did not show any acute changes in circulating leptin levels. On the fasting day we observed a small but significant fall in circulating leptin levels in the last 4 hours of a 20-hour fast in our subjects as a group (92 +/- 0.03% of basal, P = 0.03); however, in the lean subjects the fall was greater (86 +/- 0.04% of basal, P = 0.02) than in the obese, where it did not reach statistical significance (96 +/- 0.05% of basal). Pre-meal and peak insulin levels showed a positive correlation with circulating mean leptin levels (r = +0.65; P < 0.001 and r = +0.78; P < 0.001, respectively) in all subjects, while pre-meal and peak serum cortisol levels showed an inverse relation with leptin levels (r = -0.53; P = 0.002 and r = -0.41; P = 0.02, respectively); this effect was independent of BMI in the obese subjects. In the patient with the insulinoma the markedly elevated insulin and leptin levels measured before the operation returned to normal after removal of the tumour, in accord with reports of experimental animal data that long-term insulin excess per se is associated with increased circulating leptin concentrations.
Leptin is a robust indicator of BMI and insulin levels, both basal and stimulated, but does not change acutely following food. Fasting causes a proportionately greater decline in leptin levels in lean subjects than in obese subjects. Circulating leptin is inversely correlated with the activity of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis: whether this is a direct influence of leptin on hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal activity, or whether both are indirect indicators of body fat stores, requires further investigation.
Fasting for 20 hours caused a drop in leptin in the last 4 hours of the fast which was greater in lean than overweight people. Leptin levels are lower when cortisol is raised.
This implies that fasting for more than 16 hours may increase appetite in lean individuals (perhaps linked to the set point idea in that the body tries to prevent weight loss when you get slim). It also implies that stress, which increases cortisol will also cause increased appetite.
I think this study provides a mechanism for the famine reaction and how it's possible to fast too much and how stress interferes with weight loss.