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Gut hormones and gastric bypass

Holst, Jens J.

Cardiovascular Endocrinology & Metabolism: September 2016 - Volume 5 - Issue 3 - p 69–74
doi: 10.1097/XCE.0000000000000091
Review Articles

Gut hormone secretion in response to nutrient ingestion appears to depend on membrane proteins expressed by the enteroendocrine cells. These include transporters (glucose and amino acid transporters), and, in this case, hormone secretion depends on metabolic and electrophysiological events elicited by absorption of the nutrient. In other cases (e.g. lipid ingestion and digestion), stimulation may result from interaction with G-protein-coupled receptors expressed by the endocrine cells and activation of intracellular signals (cAMP, IP3, etc.). It is the rate at which these mechanisms are being activated that determines hormone responses. It follows that operations that change intestinal exposure to and absorption of nutrients, such as gastric bypass operations, also change hormone secretion. This results in exaggerated increases in the secretion of particularly the distal small intestinal hormones, GLP-1, GLP-2, oxyntomodulin, neurotensin and peptide YY (PYY). However, some proximal hormones also show changes probably reflecting that the distribution of these hormones is not restricted to the bypassed segments of the gut. Thus, cholecystokinin responses are increased, whereas gastric inhibitory polypeptide responses are relatively unchanged. Increased secretion of cholecystokinin, neurotensin, GLP-1 and PYY may contribute to the appetite inhibitory effect and, therefore, the weight loss after the operations. Indeed, in experiments in which the actions of PYY and GLP-1 were prevented, food intake increased by 20%. The increased insulin responses after the operation, one of the important mechanisms whereby these operations cause diabetes remission, is clearly due to a combination of the increased glucose absorption rates and the exaggerated GLP-1 secretion. The hormonal changes are therefore very important for the metabolic effects of the operations.

Department of Biomedical Sciences, NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark

Correspondence to Jens J. Holst, MD, PhD, Department of Biomedical Sciences, The Panum Institute, Blegdamsvej 3, DK-2200 Copenhagen, Denmark Tel: +45 28 75 75 18; e-mail:

Received June 21, 2016

Accepted June 27, 2016

Almost since the beginning of the era of measurements of the gastrointestinal hormones, it has been observed that changes in intestinal transit might be associated with changes in gut hormone secretion. For instance, it was observed in 1979 that jejunoileal bypass is associated with markedly increased secretion of ‘enteroglucagon’ 1, a collective designation of the peptides, glicentin and oxyntomodulin, N-terminal fragments of proglucagon (Fig. 1), produced and released by the so-called L-cells, epithelial endocrine cells of the gut 2. This was interpreted to reflect unusual exposure to nutrients of the distal small intestine, where the L-cell density is the highest. Indeed, accelerated gastric emptying was also shown to be associated with an increased release of ‘enteroglucagon’ 3, and later, when the C-terminal proglucagon products, glucagon-like peptides 1 and 2 (GLP-1 and 2, Fig. 1) were discovered 2, further experiments indicated that GLP-1 secretion was considerably enhanced in humans after partial gastrectomy, resulting in accelerated gastric emptying 4. Similarly, enhanced GLP-2 secretion could be elicited in experimental animals after jejunoileal transposition, where an L-cell rich segment of the ileum was interposed into the proximal gut 5. For GLP-2, this was believed to have consequences for adaptive growth in the gut, consistent with the role of GLP-2 as a growth factor for the gut 6. GLP-1 is now known to be a powerful insulin-stimulating and glucagon-inhibiting hormone 2 and the exaggerated secretion was suspected, and later proven, to be able to cause reactive hypoglycaemia 7.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

After gastric bypass operations 8, the anatomy of the upper gut is considerably rearranged (Fig. 2). Important changes include the creation of a small (30 ml) gastric pouch from the fundic part of the stomach and sectioning of the small intestine 50–100 cm from the ligament of Treitz. The distal part of the severed gut is then anastomosed to the gastric pouch, and this in effect eliminates any retention of ingested nutrients at the stomach level; instead, the nutrients rush without delay to the more distal part of the small intestine as clearly shown by studies measuring absorption of paracetamol added to a test meal 9. The proximal segment of the small intestine, with all the digestive juices secreted from the stomach, pancreas and liver, is anastomosed to the small intestine at a more distal site, creating a Y-like structure (Roux-en-Y) with three limbs: the alimentary limb (pouch→enteroentero-anastomosis), the secretory limb (stomach and duodenum→enteroentero-anastomosis) and the ‘common’ limb (from the enteroentero-anastomosis and further along the lower small intestine).

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

In agreement with the paracetamol absorption data already mentioned, nutrients are also extremely rapidly delivered to more distal gut segments (both alimentary and common limbs) and are absorbed at considerably accelerated rates 10,11. This applies to carbohydrates and surprisingly also to protein absorption, which shows an equally accelerated absorption rate 11, from which it can be concluded that the absorptive process of ingested proteins must occur in the common limb to allow proteolytic digestion and absorption of individual amino acids, and that this entire digestive and absorptive process is markedly accelerated.

These considerations of absorption are important because it is clear today that nutrient stimulation of gut hormone secretion, rather than being caused by exposure of ‘nutrient receptors’ on the luminal cell membrane, arises secondary to absorption either by the endocrine cells themselves, which seem to share many absorptive mechanisms with the enterocytes, or by neighbouring enterocytes 12. For glucose, the response of the L-cells [GLP-1, GLP-2, pancreatic peptide YY (PYY); see below] clearly depends on glucose and sodium entry by SGLT-1 transporters (followed by depolarization and eventually calcium entry) 13, and for amino acids, a similar sodium-coupled transport seems to be required 14, whereas lipids and bile interact with various G-protein-coupled receptors that are expressed on the basolateral membrane of the endocrine cells, accessible only after absorption 15.

From these considerations, a number of predictions can be made on secretion of the gut hormones after Roux-en-Y gastric bypass (RYGB).

  • Gastric hormones: The gastric pouch is not known to produce specific gut hormones (although it contains several), but a major hormone from the stomach is, of course, gastrin. In agreement with the lack of luminal stimulation of the stomach, gastrin secretion is not elevated after the operation, but rather lowered, resulting in lower than normal postprandial peripheral levels 16. Therefore, it may also be assumed that gastric pH is low as a decreased acid secretion would be associated with increasing gastrin levels. Thus, it is difficult to imagine that gastrin plays a major role in the metabolic changes after bypass surgery.
  • Duodenal hormones: In general, the duodenal hormones are not restricted to the duodenum proper, but are also found in the upper small intestine. Therefore, one would predict that the length of the secretory limb 17 would be important for postoperative duodenal hormone secretion. If this limb is long, the cells there would not be exposed to nutrients and therefore less stimulated, and conversely, if it were short, there would be endocrine cells in the alimentary limb that would be exposed to accelerated nutrient exposure, resulting in increased secretion. Most importantly, the more distally the enteroentero-anastomosis is positioned (and therefore the start of the common limb), the fewer of the duodenal hormones would be expected to be secreted. It follows that the effect of RYGB depends on the exact pattern of distribution of endocrine cells in the upper gut, but unfortunately, the mapping of the endocrine cells in humans, so far, not been detailed well 18. In addition, it is known that some adaptations may occur after the operation – for instance, the alimentary limb apparently shows significant growth postoperatively, and also expression levels of the various hormones may change, especially in the common limb 19. So what happens? A classical duodenal hormone is glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide, one of the important incretin hormones. As one might expect, postoperative meal responses have been reported to be increased, unchanged or decreased 20. Most importantly, however, the changes are small compared with preoperative responses, suggesting that glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide is not an important player in postoperative metabolic events. Another upper intestinal hormone is cholecystokinin (CCK), which exerts important effects on gastric motility, pancreatic enzyme secretion, bile flow to the duodenum as well as appetite regulation. In the few studies available, CCK responses are increased postoperatively 16, and this positions CCK as a potential factor in the reduction of appetite and therefore food intake. In terms of its potential effects on digestive secretions, very little is known about this after RYGB although, as mentioned, protein digestion is accelerated rather than inhibited, perhaps consistent with the elevated levels. In the single study that seems to have been carried out, the secretion of secretin, the hormone responsible for pancreatic and hepatic fluid and bicarbonate secretion, was also enhanced after surgery in agreement with the location of the responsible S-cells – similar to the CCK-releasing I-cells – to the proximal small intestine in addition to the location in the duodenum (N.W. Albrechtsen and J.J. Holst, unpublished data). Although normal secretin levels do not seem to influence postprandial insulin levels, the higher postoperative levels may actually have this function 21, but supportive evidence for this has not been provided so far. A final duodenal hormone is somatostatin, but although some of the somatostatin-producing D-cells in the gut are of the open type and not exclusively limited to the most proximal small intestine, and therefore would be expected to respond to luminal nutrient stimulation, postoperative changes do not seem to occur 16. This applies to plasma levels of the 14 amino acid form of somatostatin as well as the 28-amino acid form, considered to be the main form released from the intestinal D-cells.
  • The distal small intestine: The main hormones secreted from the distal small intestine are GLP-1, GLP-2, PYY and neurotensin, and all of these show markedly increased responses after the operations 16. Up to 30-fold increases have been observed 22. GLP-1 and 2, derived from the same prohormone precursor (Fig. 1), are products of the L-cells that show an increased density in the mucosa of the small intestine towards the ileum, but are, nevertheless, because of the larger mucosal surface area there, also found in rather large numbers in the more proximal parts of the small intestine 23. PYY is a coproduct of the L-cells, but only in the more distal L-cells 14. L-cells are also found in large numbers in the colon, but nothing is known about the contribution of the colon towards the normal secretory responses of these hormones – but it is known that completely normal meal responses are observed in patients after total colectomy 24, suggesting that the normal contribution is small. It has been observed that the rate of entry of chyme into the colon is normal after RYGB, suggesting that the colon is not a major contributor towards the postoperative plasma response 25.

The metabolic outcomes of the large neurotensin response are not yet clear, but experimental data suggest that neurotensin may inhibit food intake 26 and may contribute towards the weight loss after gastric bypass. PYY exerts pronounced effects on food intake both in experimental animals and in humans, indicating that PYY might play a role in the weight loss 27. As indicated in Fig. 1, both GLP-1 and GLP-2 are products of intestinal expression of proglucagon. Additional proglucagon products from the gut include glicentin and oxyntomodulin (Fig. 1). Little is known about the metabolic actions of glicentin, if any (it exerts no effects on insulin secretion in humans), but each of the other products has distinct metabolic actions. Oxyntomodulin is a dual agonist for the GLP-1 and the glucagon receptor 28. It is weaker than each of those peptides, and therefore, hardly has any important metabolic actions under normal circumstances, but after the operation, its concentrations increase so markedly that it may contribute 29. The glucagon action is of interest because this hormone may inhibit food intake and stimulate insulin secretion 30; the GLP-1 actions are discussed below. Currently, the pharmaceutical industry is attempting to develop GLP-1/glucagon coagonists for obesity because of these actions 31. The glucagon-like activity would also be expected to increase hepatic glucose production, but direct studies have shown that postprandial hepatic glucose production is inhibited normally after RYGB 10.

The main action of GLP-2 apparently is to maintain the integrity and promote growth of the small intestinal mucosa 32. The increases in GLP-2 levels are very dramatic 16 and it is conceivable, although not proven, that the postoperative trophic actions on the small intestine, mentioned above, are at least partly because of the actions of GLP-2.

The main actions of GLP-1 are to stimulate insulin secretion (it is one of the incretin hormones) and to regulate appetite and thereby inhibit food intake 2. These effects are so robust that long-acting analogues of this hormone are now being used for therapy of diabetes 33 as well as obesity 34. Therefore, it is natural to assume that the extremely exaggerated postoperative meal responses of this hormone play an important role in the metabolic effects of the operation that include diabetes resolution and weight loss. Indeed, this seems to be the case. For GLP-1, a potent receptor antagonist, exendin 9–39 (Ex-9) has been available for some time 35 and has considerably helped to elucidate the effects of endogenous GLP-1. With the antagonist, it is possible to completely block the actions of exogenous GLP-1 36. In experiments with Ex-9, it has been shown that the improved insulin response to a test meal observed after RYGB, and that is considered essential for the improved glucose tolerance and thereby diabetes resolution, can be completely prevented with this antagonist 37. Consistent with this, all of the improvement in glucose tolerance induced by the operation in obese individuals with type 2 diabetes was lost after antagonist administration. It was also observed that the marked improvement in β-cell glucose sensitivity, representing the primary effect of GLP-1 on the β-cell, was lost after antagonist administration. Indeed, the postoperative enhancement of insulin secretion is so powerful that in some individuals, it results in severe reactive hypoglycaemia, and also in these individuals, the antagonist prevents both hyperinsulinaemia and hypoglycaemia 38. Is enhanced GLP-1 secretion the only antidiabetic mechanism engaged by RYGB? Clearly not. The first important event is the perioperative dietary restriction, which is associated with loss of liver fat and therefore considerably improved hepatic insulin resistance 20. The improvement in insulin sensitivity progresses further as weight is lost, and eventually also comprises peripheral insulin resistance. Undoubtedly, this is a major factor. However, the evidence strongly supports that the exaggerated GLP-1 secretion is responsible for the improved insulin secretion (see Fig. 2).

But what about the effect on appetite and food intake? Early studies showed that good responders (i.e. those with a large postoperative weight loss) also had large GLP-1 (and PYY) responses whereas poor responders had more shallow responses 39. It was also observed that although intravenous GLP-1 and PYY were administered in doses that would somewhat resemble the operated patients’ meal responses, both exerted rather weak effects on food intake; their combination elicited a synergistic and pronounced anorectic response 27. Experiments with the GLP-1 antagonist, Ex-9, were initially confusing: although administration of the antagonist clearly increased food intake before the operation (indicating elimination of an inhibitory effect of GLP-1), there was no effect after the operation 40. Analysis of the concomitant hormone responses showed that the antagonist markedly augmented the already exaggerated GLP-1 responses further (challenging the efficacy of the antagonist). The increase is probably because of a well-known negative feedback effect of GLP-1 on L-cell secretion 41 and, when this is blocked by the antagonist, secretion increases. However, also PYY responses, already considerably increased by the operation, were increased markedly by the antagonist, consistent with secretion of this hormone from the same cells as GLP-1 42. However, the antagonist cannot block the appetite-inhibitory effects of PYY; thus, although the effects of GLP-1 were probably blocked, the inhibitory effects of PYY were correspondingly increased, explaining the resulting lack of effect. To investigate the effects of the associated increase in PYY, a PYY antagonist would have been useful, but PYY antagonists do not seem to exist. However, the anorectic effect of PYY requires conversion of the initially secreted peptide, PYY 1–36, into a truncated form, PYY 3–36, mediated by the ubiquitous enzyme, dipeptidyl peptidase-4, which also truncates (and inactivates) GLP-1. Thus, it is possible to prevent the formation of the active metabolite PYY 3–36 with the aid of dipeptidyl peptidase 4 inhibitors 43, which are used widely for the therapy of diabetes (because of their protective effects on GLP-1). In final studies, it was shown that although neither administration of Ex-9 nor a dipeptidyl peptidase 4 inhibitor alone had any effect on food intake compared with control experiments, the combination of the two, which did, indeed, result in considerably decreased levels of PYY 3–36, increased food intake significantly, by about 20%, sufficient to explain a major part of the decreased food intake elicited by the operation 40.

Thus, it seems clear that the gut hormones play a major role in the results of bypass surgery, with food intake evidently being inhibited by the two hormones, GLP-1 and PYY, in combination (and perhaps as a result of a potentiating interaction), whereas the antidiabetic effect is probably mainly because of the effects of GLP-1 on insulin secretion.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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exendin 9–39; gastric bypass; GLP-1; gut hormones; pancreatic peptide YY; Roux-en-Y gastric bypass

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