Insulin Resistance: Causes, Symptoms and How to Reverse It
Last week, we talked all about blood sugar; what it is, what it does for us, how our body stores it, and how having chronically elevated blood sugar levels can lead to chronically elevated insulin and ultimately, insulin resistance. This week, we are going to further explore that concept; what causes it, it’s symptomology, what we can do to prevent it and what steps we can take to reverse it.
First, let’s recap: Insulin is an important hormone that is made by the pancreas. Any carbohydrates that you consume are quickly broken down into glucose, which then passes directly into the bloodstream. Insulin is released in response to rising blood sugar and maintains normal levels by facilitating cellular uptake for immediate energy use or storage in muscle, fat and liver cells. You might think of insulin as the key, or doorman, that opens the door of the cell, allowing blood glucose to enter. Insulin resistance occurs when blood sugar levels remain high over an extended period of time. The pancreas continues to produce more insulin in order to accommodate the higher levels of glucose. In other words, the more glucose in the blood, the more insulin needed to put it away. The modern diet, heavy in processed and refined carbohydrate, has significantly impacted the way that this system works. Energy is always available, and the muscle, liver and fat cells (our backup storage), are now rarely called upon. However, we keep on eating, and since there is no more room for uptake in the cell, eventually they begin to reject the action of insulin all together. This only results in the pancreas feeling unheard, and it begins to flood the bloodstream with even more insulin. Until of course, it becomes fatigued and no longer produces any at all.
Unfortunately, there are few obvious physical symptoms of insulin resistance, and it often goes on for years before it is properly diagnosed. One advanced stage symptom is a skin condition called acanthosis nigricans, which causes dark patches in the armpits, on the neck, knees and elbows. More subtle symptoms of insulin resistance include general fatigue, excess belly fat, elevated fasting blood sugar, skin tags, fluid retention, brain fog and intensified sugar and carb cravings.
Insulin resistance is a modern problem, most often related to a modern diet and a sedentary lifestyle. The good news is, we have every ability to course correct and prevent insulin resistance from developing, and even the ability to reverse it. Reduce over-all consumption of processed and refined carbohydrates. This means favoring whole-food sources like yam, parsnip, turnip, carrot and seasonal fruit. These sources of complex carbs break down more slowly, creating less of an immediate spike in blood sugar. For some, adopting an intentionally low-carb or ketogenic diet might be necessary. Don’t Be Afraid of Healthy Fats. Be sure to pair whole-food carbohydrates with slower burning fats like avocado, coconut, olives, nuts, seeds and their respective oils and butters. Be sure to avoid unhealthy, heavily processed and refined fats like canola, corn, grapeseed, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, soy and rice brain oils which contribute to inflammation and reduce insulin sensitivity. Put a focus on fiber. Incorporate lots of non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, zucchini, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, raspberries, blueberries, nuts and seeds. Dietary fiber slows carbohydrate digestion and glucose absorption, preventing quick spikes in blood sugar and keeps you feeling full longer. Include Protein. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and play an important role in mediating insulin secretion. Include high quality protein at every meal; pasture raised chicken and eggs, grass-fed beef and lamb, wild caught fish like salmon and sardines, as well as plant proteins like lentils and organic tempeh. Move your body. Muscles burn their stored glucose for energy when activated, so find a form of movement that you enjoy; daily short walks around the block, longer hikes in the woods, yoga, dancing in your living room, or something a little more challenging like boxing, HIIT or strength training. Get great sleep. According to a 2016 study, a single night of sleep deprivation will significantly decrease insulin sensitivity in an otherwise healthy individual. Be sure to create a comfortable sleeping environment; total darkness, no TV, not too warm and try to get 7-9 hours of sleep each and every night.
Mitigate stress. Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone. It also inhibits the cells sensitivity to insulin. On top of that, it can negatively impact your blood pressure, weaken your immune system, wreak havoc on your sleep, and in turn further contribute to the development of insulin resistance. Incorporate relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, gratitude journaling, meditation and time in nature. Written by Cait Mizzi, CFNP