Leptin is a protein released primarily from fat cells although other tissues such as muscle also contribute slightly. Leptin levels primarily correlate with bodyfat percentage, the more fat you have the more leptin you tend to have (note: different depots of fat, visceral versus subcutaneous, show different relationships with leptin). At any given bodyfat percentage, women typically produce 2-3 times as much leptin as men.
In addition to being related to the amount of bodyfat you have, leptin levels are also related to how much you’re eating. For example, in response to dieting, leptin levels may drop by 50% within a week (or less) although you obviously haven’t lost 50% of your bodyfat. After that initial rapid drop, there is a slower decrease in leptin related to the loss of bodyfat that is occurring. In response to overfeeding, leptin tends to rebound equally quickly (much faster than you’re gaining bodyfat). In contrast to what you might think, it looks like leptin production by fat cells is mainly determined by glucose availability (you’d think it was fat intake). So whenever you start pulling glucose out of the fat cell (dieting), leptin levels go down; when you drive glucose into fat cells, it goes up.
Basically, leptin represents two different variables: how much bodyfat you’re carrying and how much you’re eating. That is, it acts as a signal to the rest of your body about your energy stores. Like most hormones in the body, leptin has effects on most tissues in the body. Leptin receptors have been found all over the place, in the liver, skeletal muscle, in immune cells; you name a site in the body and there are probably leptin receptors there. There are also leptin receptors in the brain but I’ll come back to that below. For now, let’s look at a few of the effects that leptin has on other tissues in the body.
In the liver, leptin tends to reduce insulin secretion from the beta-cells. In skeletal muscle, leptin promotes fat burning and tends to spare glucose (and therefore amino acid use). In fat cells, leptin may promote fat oxidation as well as making the fat cell somewhat insulin resistant. Leptin also affects immune cell function; decreasing leptin impairs the body’s ability to mount an immune response. Now you know at least part of the reason you tend to get sick more when you diet.