Insulin is a hormone involved in the metabolic processes that convert the food we eat into the fuel our bodies need to survive. As the master fuel-supply hormone, insulin’s main functions are to regulate the amount of blood sugar (glucose) that flows into the body’s cells to create energy, and to communicate the need to refuel (that is, to eat or stop eating).
In about 10 percent of the population, cells start to “resist” the influences of the insulin hormone, thereby reducing its effectiveness and causing it to build up in the blood, eventually resulting in a condition known as insulin resistance. Warning signs of insulin resistance include:
- frequent thirst
- frequent urination
- excessive hunger
- gaining a few pounds and having difficulty losing them
- unexplained drowsiness or feeling tired most of the time, especially after eating
- inability to concentrate
- decreased endurance during physical exertion and exercise
- high blood pressure
- low high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the “good” cholesterol)
- high triglyceride levels
- high fasting glucose levels
- skin tags or dark discoloration (acanthosis nigricans) around the neck, groin or armpits.
Contributing factors to Insulin resistance include poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle which causes excess insulin. This puts the body into fat-making mode and keeps it there, making it harder to lose the extra pounds. In addition to abdominal fat, insulin resistance is often accompanied by hypertension, high triglyceride levels, and/or low HDL levels (the “good” cholesterol). This clustering of symptoms is also known as Metabolic Syndrome or Syndrome X. While each of the associated conditions increases the chance of a heart attack, stroke or diabetes, in combination they put individuals at very high risk because they tend to aggravate each other and create a vicious cycle of poor health that can be hard to overcome.
How did we get to this point? Many believe that the farther we stray from our natural food path, the more likely we are to develop insulin resistance.
How Did We Go Astray?
The human diet has changed significantly since the Stone Age nearly 15,000 years ago when people survived by foraging for wild, edible plants and occasionally hunting game. Early people obtained about half of their daily calories from carbohydrates, roughly the same percentage nutritionists recommend today. But their carbohydrates bear little resemblance to the kind most of us eat today.
Stone Age people rarely ate grains (and did not cultivate them), and never consumed dairy products, domesticated meats, or any sweet foods (except perhaps honey). Carbohydrates largely derived from vegetables and a few small fruits when in season. These plants contained less sugar content, and about five times as much fiber content, as their modern descendants.
Unfortunately, we continue to stray further away from the nutrient-rich foods we were meant to eat. Few of us eat enough “complex” carbohydrates, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, which contain complex sugars, starches, and fibers. Instead, our daily carbohydrates are more processed than ever, and more likely to raise blood sugar and insulin levels.
Low testosterone and progesterone levels may also lead to insulin resistance in both men and women. Michael E. Platt, MD, author of The Miracle of Bio-identical Hormones maintains that the major cause of hyperinsulinemia (too much insulin) is too little progesterone. “Low progesterone levels,” he writes, “cause over-production of insulin, leading to hypoglycemia and an outpouring of adrenaline to bring sugar levels up.” According to Dr. Platt, natural progesterone reduces insulin and regulates blood sugar levels.
Given the complexity of metabolism and the various contributors to that process, the slightest imbalance among any of the organs, glands, or hormones involved can create a chronic insulin-glucose imbalance that becomes increasingly difficult to correct.
How Do We Prevent or Overcome Insulin Resistance?
There is good news, but anyone wishing to prevent or reverse insulin resistance should expect to work hard. Increasing our physical activity levels and improving eating habits are both difficult, but the benefits are many and significant. Weight loss and balanced nutrition are the keys to preventing or reversing insulin resistance, and even modest drops in weight can also improve blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and decrease inflammation,
Improve Your Diet
Eliminating highly processed foods and refined sugars from your diet is the first step toward preventing or reversing insulin resistance. Each additional small step back toward a more natural diet helps moderate the glucose-insulin response even further. Shifting from more processed foods (like apple drinks) to their whole forms (an apple) also adds more fiber to the diet, takes longer to eat, and creates a feeling of fullness.
The timing and overall composition of meals can also affect blood sugar levels. Eating several small meals (instead of three large ones) reduces spikes of blood sugar, while eating some protein along with carbohydrates helps the body make better use of both. For many people, adding a broad-spectrum mineral supplement also really helps. Avoiding caffeine (which triggers the liver to release sugar) and alcohol (which raises triglycerides) are also recommended.
Get More Exercise
Moderate activity such as brisk walking for 30 minutes, at least five days per week, is recommended for both losing weight and increasing “good” cholesterol levels. “Exercise helps the body to use insulin more efficiently,” writes Drs. Isaacs and Vagnini. “Even if you don’t lose weight, exercise promotes blood flow to the muscles, helping your body use glucose more readily.”
Maintain Hormone Balance
As discussed previously, even a slight hormone imbalance can have a significant effect on the complex chemical processes involved in metabolism. A complete hormone checkup will provide valuable information regarding potential reasons for insulin resistance. In particular, the thyroid hormones, cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone—in both men and women—all play significant roles in keeping insulin and glucose in check.
Maybank Hormones and Weight loss can help you balance your hormones, lose weight and get your insulin resistance under control. For an appointment call 843- 557-1111.