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Doctors may have found the link between severe COVID-19 cases and obesity

"Leptin regulates the immune cell number as well as its function," Dr. Rebello said.

NEW ORLEANS — Doctors have been telling us that, along with diabetes and high blood pressure, obesity is putting our population at risk for getting very sick and even dying from COVID-19. 

Well now, two Louisiana doctors are the first to uncover that potential link with obesity. 

You may remember the British prime minister talking about losing weight after COVID-19.

"When I went into ICU when I was, I was very, I was way overweight. I’m only about 5 foot 10, the outside, and I was too fat," said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

First some background. The hormone leptin tells your brain to lower your appetite. It’s the shut-off valve for hunger. The more fat cells you have, the more leptin you have in your body. But here’s the catch, doctors know that in people with obesity, the hormone leptin may not be working right.

"So the fat cells are releasing or secreting leptin. The brain is not getting the message to lower appetite," explained Dr. Candida Rebello, who works in pharmacology-based clinical trials at LSU Pennington Biomedical Research center.  

And now Dr. Rebello and her colleague Dr. John Kirwan, of LSU Pennington Biomedical Research Center, are the first to make the connection in what may be the reason that high amounts of leptin in people with obesity is causing serious, even fatal COVID-19 reactions. And it’s because leptin has another job.

"Leptin regulates the immune cell number as well as its function," Dr. Rebello said.

So if your leptin is out of wack, so is your weight and your immune system, which is needed to fight all infections. That’s why obesity puts you at serious risk of death even with the flu. And just like we have medicines to lower blood pressure, Dr. Rebello is now looking for a treatment to lower leptin. 

"At this time the only way that can, that leptin levels can be reduced is through weight loss. Bariatric surgery has shown to reduce leptin levels.  So my thing is prevention.  Even if you are overweight, or you have obesity,  at this time it’s never too late to take steps to reduce that," Dr.Rebello said.

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She also wants to make sure that a coronavirus vaccine is tested and works in people with obesity. 

"Obesity is a disease like any other disease, like diabetes and like hypertension," Dr. Rebello said. "Obesity is a disease." 

The doctors have not yet looked at the connection with obesity and COVID-19 in children. But they say that pregnant women make more leptin and remind us that the CDC says expectant mothers are at higher risk for coronavirus complications.

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