Insulin is one of several hormones that are produced by the pancreas. Although insulin is often thought of as simply controlling blood sugar levels, it actually has far reaching effects on many other hormones and metabolic processes throughout your body. Insulin controls cellular intake of different substances including glucose in muscle and adipose tissue; it has a role in DNA replication and protein synthesis through its control of amino acid uptake; it modifies enzyme activity. It also has important roles in the function of blood vessels and thought processes.
Insulin resistance is a condition in which your insulin is not effectively controlling your blood sugar levels. The pancreas then produces more insulin in an attempt to maintain a normal blood sugar level. As an analogy, this is similar to patients that are on morphine-based pain killers who, with time, require progressively higher doses to achieve the same level of pain relief. Elevated levels of insulin are associated with obesity, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), high blood pressure, and elevated triglyceride levels. It increases the ratio of fat to muscle mass and decreases fat burning. It will also reduce your body’s ability to convert tryptophan into serotonin, the feel good hormone. Ultimately, the elevated insulin levels are unable to control the blood sugar level and diabetes ensues.
Some common symptoms of insulin resistance include:
- Weight gain / difficulty losing weight
- Constipation/diarrhoea / abdominal bloating
- Drowsiness especially after eating
- Elevated triglyceride levels
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Increased hunger
- Ankle swelling / burning feet
- Water retention
- Brain fog
- Irritability / poor memory/concentration
- Poly cystic ovarian syndrome / irregular menses
Now for the good news! There are a number of recommendations that can reduce insulin resistance. The number one defence and treatment for insulin resistance is diet. You need to avoid sugars and refined carbohydrates. These foods will generally have a high glycaemic index* that rapidly elevates the blood sugar and consequently raise your insulin levels. This in turn leads to the above symptoms. So eating a bowl of cereal in the morning is about the worst thing you can do because the cereal gets broken down into sugar which your body will in part, convert to palmytic acid. Thus the sugar is stored as saturated fat which you absolutely do not want. This is why insulin resistance causes high triglyceride levels in the blood.
How does insulin resistance cause high blood pressure? Insulin helps to store magnesium in the cell but when your cells become insulin resistant the magnesium gets excreted out in your urine instead. This means that your blood vessels constrict (magnesium helps to keep our blood vessels dilated) causing the blood pressure to go up. As magnesium is also used for the production of energy in the cell your energy levels go down.
Following a Palaeolithic diet is optimal. No cereals or breads, pastries, biscuits, crackers, cakes or sweets. Instead stick to anything you can hunt and gather – vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts, fish, meats. Always use olive or coconut oil, not polyunsaturated oils or margarines that will increase your inflammatory state even more and impair your immune system. The fibre from vegetables also helps to treat insulin resistance. Lentils, chickpeas and broccoli also actively help to decrease insulin levels.
The second recommendation is exercise. This is a great way to reduce insulin resistance. Now, don’t worry if you have been a bit light on this for a while. Start low, go slow. Gradually build up what you do over time. You may want to start with walking. Other good low impact options include swimming, bicycling, gym work. It often pays to get some advice from a trainer, particularly if you haven’t exercised for a while. We don’t want ligament strains or other injuries! You may only need a couple of sessions with them to get things going again.
Thirdly, chromium is an essential trace mineral that can be readily supplemented with the appropriate medical advice.
Fourthly, DHEA is a hormone that we have mentioned previously that is also effective at reducing insulin resistance. These levels can readily be measured and supplemented with a prescription, if appropriate.
* It is important to differentiate between the glycaemic index and glycaemic load of a food. For example, carrots have a relatively high glycaemic index but have a low glycaemic load because you would have to eat an awful lot of them before they actually raised your blood sugar significantly.