So maybe your gaining weight despite diet and exercise and you just can’t seem to lose it. The weight seems to center primarily in your abdomen. Perhaps you have high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure, uterine fibroids, BPH (Benign Prostatic Hypertrophy), fatigue, acne or even skin tags. Regardless of which condition(s) you may be experiencing they all have something in common…Insulin Resistance.
Normal Insulin Function:
When food is eaten the glucose and/or amino acids trigger the pancreas to secrete insulin. Insulin then binds to cells and like a key in a lock opens the pathway of the cell allowing glucose, amino acids, fats and various nutrients to enter. The cell in turn begins a process of converting these nutrients into fuel/energy. Once all these nutrients are cleared from the blood the pancreas stops producing insulin.
Cells are covered in insulin receptors. These insulin receptors either become resistant to insulin or begin to down regulate creating a condition known as Insulin Resistance. When insulin can no longer get glucose and nutrients into the cells glucose levels in the blood remain high and the pancreas then produces even more insulin to counter this effect. Now, not only is the blood stream saturated with high levels of glucose, but insulin levels are continuing to rise and nutrients are not able to nourish the cell.
Cells and Insulin Resistance:
The cells in the liver are the first cells to become resistant to insulin. The liver which normally stores glucose in the form of glycogen for energy isn’t sensing the presence of glucose and begins making more through a process known as gluconeogenesis. This newly formed glucose is now sent out into the blood stream adding to the already high levels of blood sugar. The liver also stops breaking down fatty acids and starts storing them in the liver. Cells in the skin, lining of the arteries and some other cells never become insulin resistant. Most cancer cells do not become insulin resistant. However, immune system cells may become insulin resistant.
Metabolic Syndrome is the name given to the condition when a person exhibits 3 of the following indicators:
• Waist measurement of 40 inches or more for men and 35 inches or more for women
• Triglyceride levels of 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or above, or taking medication for elevated triglyceride levels
• HDL, or “good,” cholesterol level below 40 mg/dL for men and below 50 mg/dL for women, or taking medication for low HDL levels
• Blood pressure levels of 130/85 or above, or taking medication for elevated blood pressure levels
• Fasting blood glucose levels of 100 mg/dL or above, or taking medication for elevated blood glucose levels
Why people become Insulin Resistant:
Genetics (accounts for 25% of cases)
Diet high in simple carbohydrates with a lack of protein
Lack of resistance exercise
Lack of Essential Fatty Acids
Too many trans fatty acids in the diet
Lack of specific nutrients and trace elements
Too much stress
Lack of sleep
Some of the Effects of Insulin Resistance on the Body:
• Difficult time losing weight
• Increased risk of various cancers
• High Cholesterol
Difficult time losing weight and Obesity:
A number of different things happen when insulin levels are high. First, growth hormone is suppressed. Growth hormone promotes the growth of bones and soft tissues and helps to regulate fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism. The consequences of suppressed growth hormone are numerous but include impaired fat burning especially in the abdomen, reduced muscle mass and strength and high levels of LDL “Bad” cholesterol. For people with high insulin levels due to insulin resistance they find it very difficult to lose weight and build muscle even when they exercise.
Increased Risk of Cancer:
Most cancer cells do not become insulin resistant. So, in other words these cells are still receiving nutrients which feed their growth and allow them to produce energy. Another thing that occurs when insulin levels are high is that the liver secretes more IGF-1 (Insulin Growth Factor). IGF-1 is a protein hormone which closely resembles insulin in its structure. IGF-1 helps to regulate cell growth and development and has insulin like effects. The combination of high insulin and IGF-1 levels creates oxidation of cells and promotes the growth of certain cells. Cell damage and growth relates to cancer leaving someone much more prone to various tumors of the breast, prostate, endometrium and colon. Increased IGF-1 levels may also play a role in Uterine Fibroids, Benign Prostatic Hypertrophy (BPH), Acne, early menarche and numerous other conditions.
High levels of insulin in the blood also elevate triglyceride levels and lower HDL which is the “good” or protective cholesterol. This in turn puts someone at a much greater risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Normally, insulin acts as a vasodilator and reduces the rigidity of arteries. However, with Insulin Resistance high levels of insulin start to create vasoconstriction which may lead to high blood pressure and atherosclerosis. Insulin also causes the body to retain salt and water which can potentially increase the risk of developing hypertension.
Why am I always hungry?
White adipose tissue (WAT) is found primarily around the abdomen and is used for storing easily retrievable fat which will be used later for energy. Leptin is a hormone secreted by white adipose tissue which sends a signal to the hypothalamus in the brain indicating that fat cells are full and that it is time to start burning fat. As Leptin levels rise a signal is sent to the pancreas to stop secreting insulin. Leptin is secreted when insulin is binding to cells or when fat cells are full. However, when there are high levels of glucose and insulin in the bloodstream and excess fat around the abdomen there is a disruption in the Leptin signal and levels of Leptin begin to rise. In response to the high levels of Leptin the pancreas and hypothalamus go on the defense and reduce the number of Leptin receptors. This can cause a condition known as “Leptin resistance”. With the disruption of the Leptin signal the body still thinks it is hungry and the metabolism slows down fat burning. The pancreas continues to secrete insulin and the whole vicious cycle continues.
Another hormone called Ghrelin is secreted by cells in the stomach wall. Ghrelin sends a signal to stimulate the appetite when the stomach is empty. Growth hormone which helps to build lean muscle, burn fat and help to sensitize insulin resistant cells is also secreted in response to Ghrelin. However, high levels of insulin and glucose caused by insulin resistance once again disrupt the signal. The effect is that insulin levels continue to rise and Growth Hormone is blunted. Therefore, even when we have eaten we are still getting the signal that we are hungry, we are not building lean muscle or burning fat and the cells are exposed again to high levels of insulin.
Insulin Resistance and Thrombosis:
High levels of insulin in the blood have been shown to promote fibrinogen which increases clotting of blood and decrease PAI-1 which inhibits clot breakdown. These two factors greatly increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Insulin Resistance and Stress:
Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands in response to stress, exercise, lack of sleep, hunger, etc. When cortisol is released due to stress a reserve of energy in the form of glucose is secreted by the liver. This glucose then signals the pancreas to release insulin. If the stress becomes prolonged and this cycle continues it can eventually lead to Insulin resistance. Someone who is pre-diabetic has the potential to go into full blown diabetes when cortisol is present. This vicious cycle of high levels of insulin and cortisol can eventually lead to adrenal exhaustion.
The Thyroid and Insulin Resistance:
When blood levels of insulin are high thyroid hormones are less able to convert T-4 to T-3 hormones. Because thyroid hormones are not converting sufficiently a condition of hypothyroid or underactive thyroid may occur.
Insulin Resistance and Osteoporosis:
Insulin is important in helping to protect bones from breaking down and also helping to promote collagen formation. When bone cells become insulin resistant they no longer provide this protection which sets the stage for Osteoporosis.
Exercise and Insulin Resistance:
Exercise increases the production of growth hormone. Growth hormone helps to build lean muscle, burn fat and increase insulin sensitivity. Insulin suppresses Growth hormone. Growth hormones response to exercise lasts about 90 minutes. Therefore, it is much more beneficial to take (3) ten minute walks per day than one 30 minute walk. Trained muscle also has the ability to clear glucose more efficiently than untrained muscle. Also keep in mind than after exercising if you decide to rehydrate using sports drinks they actually blunt growth hormone and negate the beneficial effect of exercise.
Trained muscle also has the ability to clear glucose more rapidly than untrained muscle.
Overcoming Insulin Resistance:
The body is a marvelous machine and has numerous mechanisms to correct imbalances. However, the body has no response to insulin resistance and therefore cannot correct this imbalance without intervention. Lifestyle and dietary changes are a must for overcoming Insulin Resistance. If you are interested in establishing a program to overcome Insulin Resistance check with a Natural Health Practitioner who specializes in this condition. Some things that you can do to increase insulin senstivity are:
- Eat a breakfast high in protein
- Avoid simple carbohydrates and focus on complex carbohydrates
- Exercise (At least three 10 minute walks per day along with some type of resistance training)
- Get plenty of rest
- Avoid hydrogenated fats found in margarine and processed foods
- Reduce stress (See Article on Tips to Reduce Stress)
- Get good plenty of good fats (Olive and Coconut oil, fish oil, nuts)
- Replenish nutrients (see below)
Those who are Type 1 or Type 2 Insulin dependent diabetics must work in conjunction with their health care provider.
Supplements and Herbs which may Increase Insulin Sensitivity:
• Chromium picolinate
• Cod Liver Oil for a dose of docosohexaenoic acid (DHA)
- B-Complex, in the form of a multivitamin
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-gracium)
– This culinary herb which is often used in Mediterranean cooking also exhibits benefits for increasing insulin sensitivity. However, in order to be beneficial the dose would have to be 1 ounce per day. This dose would be extremely difficult to ingest in the course of one day.
– Cinnamon is thought to help lower blood sugar in the same manner as the pharmaceutical drug Metformin by suppressing the production of glucose from the liver. As little as 3 grams of cinnamon per day may be beneficial in lowering blood glucose levels by increasing insulin sensitivity at the cellular level.
Grifola spp. (Maitake mushroom)
– Research indicates that either a powder or water extract of Maitake mushroom may help to increase insulin sensitivity and therefore lower glucose and insulin levels.
Caffea aribica (Coffee)
– Coffee appears to contain constituents which increase insulin sensitivity.
Despite the fact that Diabetes has become an epidemic in this country we can now see that there is hope through dietary changes, lifestyle modifications, exercise and supplementation. Anyone with diabetes should consult their doctor before beginning any type of program that may affect blood sugar levels. The information given here is for educational purposes only and should not be used for the treatment or diagnosis of any disease.
This article is based on a summary of a class given by Paul Bergner at the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism. The course title is Insulin Resistance: Pathophysiology and Natural Therapeutics. If you are interested in learning more about this class or others given by Paul Bergner visit his website at: