Preventing & Healing Insulin Resistance
When you eat carbohydrates, your blood sugar rises and the starchier or more refined the carb, the faster and higher your blood sugar will spike. In response to blood sugar rising, your pancreas produces and secretes insulin to help transport glucose from the blood and into the cells to be used for energy. Insulin resistance occurs when cells have a reduced response (i.e. become less sensitive) to insulin – so glucose does not enter the cells to be used for energy and instead remains in the blood stream. As a result, the pancreas continues to secrete insulin in response to the higher blood sugar levels in a desperate attempt to signal the uptake of glucose by the cells.
There are several serious health consequences to long-term elevated blood sugar levels. These include damage to blood vessels that supply blood to vital organs, leading to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, kidney disease, vision problems, and nerve problems.
Insulin resistance itself can have disastrous consequences. It raises cortisol levels, primarily as a consequence of eating too much sugar and refined carbohydrates. Elevated cortisol has a negative cascading effect on other hormones – most notably, depleting progesterone leading to estrogen-dominance. This same mechanism is implicated as a major culprit in the development of breast cancer. Insulin is also a fat-storage hormone which essentially tells your body to store excess sugar as fat – so insulin resistance can cause weight gain. Over time, your body’s cells become less responsive to insulin – causing even more to be pumped out (and more sugar to be stored as fat). Eventually, the cells become so unresponsive that diabetes results.
What causes insulin resistance?
There are many causes of insulin resistance, but diet is certainly the major contributor. A diet high in refined carbs, fructose (especially high fructose corn syrup), bad fats (particularly damaged or trans-fat) and dairy products. Nutrient depletions are another culprit as are an excess of inflammatory compounds which can be caused by environmental toxins. There is also a genetic component that can be due to defective insulin receptors or defective insulin signaling inside the cells.
How to heal
Luckily, preventing and healing from insulin resistance can be achieved through a variety of natural approaches – nutrition and lifestyle being the most important.
Focus on whole foods – low carb, low glycemic index
Avoid refined and simple sugars as well as high fructose corn syrup – packaged, processed or avoid fried foods
Include beans and legumes – they are high in fiber so slow glucose absorption (i.e. slows the spike in blood sugar and keeps blood sugar levels steady)
Add in Plant-based omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids from food sources as much as possible to reduce inflammation and increase the sensitivity of cells to insulin
Choose organic animal products and avoid commercially raised meat – conventional animal products are loaded with inflammatory compounds that disrupt cell behavior
Reduce alcohol consumption - high in sugar and promotes inflammation.
Diets with balanced carbs work better than very low carb diets – in other words, it is helpful to include foods like starchy vegetables, legumes and whole grains in small amounts – because carbohydrates promote serotonin production. Serotonin is not just your “feel good” hormone – it is also a neurotransmitter that controls appetite.
One of the effective ways to stabilize blood sugar is to eat in small amounts and often throughout the day (think 4-6 smaller meals). The easiest way to keep your blood sugar level is to have a minimum of three meals a day, never miss breakfast, and have a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack (containing a healthy protein and fat).
Skipping meals and binging on foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates disrupt blood sugar balance and lead to cravings and desensitization of cells to insulin (i.e. insulin resistance). Therefore, it is critical to eat regularly and often. Also, reliance on caffeine to boost energy actually blocks the production of both serotonin and melatonin which can result in tiredness, irritability, and feelings of anxiety and depression.
Stress adversely affects blood sugar control. Exposure (especially chronic exposure), be it from physical, mental or emotional channels, leads to activation of the body’s stress response. This causes an increase in the stress hormones, particularly cortisol. Among many other things, cortisol causes blood glucose levels to rise and blunt the response to insulin.
Stress seems to be an inevitable part of modern living, so it is critical to develop effective methods to deal with it. Regular relaxation practices such as meditation, yoga, and singing, can improve blood glucose control – especially in people who are anxious or experiencing significant stress in their lives.
Exercise is absolutely essential in the prevention and management of insulin resistance and diabetes. It directly improves insulin sensitivity and blood glucose control due to a combination of increased lean muscle mass and improvement in muscle cell metabolism. A combination of moderate intensity aerobics and resistance training is the best approach for increasing insulin sensitivity.
While there are many supplements and herbs that are quite effective in improving insulin sensitivity and healing insulin resistance, it is important to understand that supplementation alone is not sufficient. You must incorporate the diet, stress management and exercise guidelines above before considering supplementation. Once those pieces are in place, the following supplements can be incredibly effective in speeding up the healing process.
Chromium – is vital to proper blood glucose control because it functions in the body as a key constituent of what is known as glucose tolerance factor, a molecule that facilitates the action of insulin. As a result, chromium works closely with insulin in assisting the uptake of glucose into cells. Without chromium, insulin’s action is blocked and glucose levels stay elevated. Try 400-600mcg per day.
Magnesium – like chromium, magnesium is involved in glucose metabolism, as well as countless other body functions. Try 300-500mg per day.
Zinc – is involved in virtually all aspects of insulin metabolism: synthesis, secretion, and utilization. It also has a protective effect against beta cell destruction (the cells that secrete insulin). Try 30mg per day.
Biotin – functions in the manufacture and utilization of carbs, fats, and amino acids. Without biotin, sugar metabolism is severely impaired. Biotin can enhance insulin sensitivity and increase the activity of enzymes responsible for glucose metabolism.
Omega Fatty Acids – vital nutrients, especially for diabetics. They are anti-inflammatory and promote insulin sensitivity. They are nearly completely lacking in the basic diet of someone with insulin resistance. Try a combined EPA+DHA of 1,000mg per day.
Milk thistle – may support glucose and lipid metabolism and protects liver cells from damage (common with insulin resistance) Best in tincture form
Cinnamon – increases insulin sensitivity and decreases fasting blood sugar levels. add cinnamon to drinks and meals.
Fenugreek – increases insulin sensitivity and improves glycemic control. Also reduces cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Add to meals.
Bitter melon, gudmar, and gulvel are herbal remedies used in Ayurvedic medicine to regulate blood sugar levels.
If anyone in your family has insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome or diabetes, prevention is your number one focus. Luckily, following the recommendations throughout this guide will serve you well. If you already suffer from insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome or diabetes, following these guidelines can help you to recover and possibly even reduce or eliminate your reliance on medications. Reach out for a holistic nutrition session for individualized support.