Regulating blood sugar levels can be a complex matter involving multiple systems within the body. One of the most common challenges at the cell level is insulin resistance, which is the precursor for a myriad of serious health complications, such as type 2 diabetes. When insulin resistance occurs the insulin receptors on the cell become dysfunctional, and prevents our cells from receiving glucose (our primary source of energy) properly. This results in high blood sugar and insulin levels in the circulation, which is certainly not a place we want to be.
Before diving into the depths of insulin resistance, it’s important to understand the basics of blood sugar handling. If you need a quick refresher, check out our article on Blood Sugar Basics. Otherwise, let’s jump in!
Hopefully the basics have been covered and we can truly grasp what is occurring during insulin resistance. When this problem occurs, the insulin receptors located on the surface of the target cells become defective and non-responsive to the hormone insulin. Insulin attempts to make a connection with the insulin receptor, but insulin essentially bounces off because the receptor isn’t functioning properly. This forces insulin to stay in the circulation and levels to rise. Since glucose is dependent on insulin for transportation into the cell, glucose cannot enter and sugar becomes elevated in the circulation as well. The pancreas tries to compensate, due to elevated glucose levels, by secreting more insulin in an attempt solve the problem. This only makes matters worse. This is one of the major problems related balancing blood sugar levels, and maintaining energy levels. Consider the number of insulin receptors and cells in the body, it makes logical sense that there are different degrees of insulin resistance. So the goal is to address the cause of the insulin resistance, and make every attempt to increase insulin sensitivity.
The three primary factors that are related to causing insulin resistance are:
1. Excessive stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline)
2. Polyunsaturated fats
3. Obesity & Estrogen
1. EXCESSIVE STRESS HORMONES
When our primary stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) are chronically elevated, they can cause major complications to the cell. Cortisol will counteract the action of insulin, and excessive levels will block the hormone, leading to insulin resistance. As long as cortisol levels stay elevated, insulin cannot function and cells will be deprived of glucose. This is clearly seen with cortisol medications (prednisone and cortisone injections), which elevate levels and induces insulin resistance. Cortisol also catabolizes (breaks down) protein tissues in the body to amino acids for energy purposes. If these amino acids include tryptophan (broken down from muscle tissue) they will be eventually converted to serotonin, which stimulates the pituitary gland, which further increases the release of cortisol. Serotonin also perpetuates the situation by suppressing glucose oxidation (glucose cannot be utilized by the mitochondria of the cell) and thyroid function. The other major hormone, adrenaline, creates issues as well, but does this through the break down of fatty acids. The break down of fatty acids into the circulation turns off the release of insulin. Most individuals also have large amounts of polyunsaturated fats stored, which get broken down by adrenaline and cause insulin resistance and disrupt the beta cells of the pancreas. Excessive cortisol and adrenaline are major contributing factors leading to insulin resistance and eventual diabetes.
2. POLYUNSATURATED FATS
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are problematic for the pancreas (which produces and secretes insulin) and cause insulin resistance. These fats are coming primarily from nuts, seeds, certain vegetables, and their respective oil, which concentrates them and exacerbates the problem. Some common oils of concern include soy, canola, corn, and general vegetable oils. PUFAs impact the pancreas, and prolonged exposure can damage the beta cells that are responsible for secreting insulin. If this occurs there will be insulin fluctuations and glucose levels will be elevated in the circulation. PUFA’s also negatively impact the hormonal system and decrease thyroid function, which expose the body to higher levels of estrogen. Excessive estrogen can desensitize the action of insulin, encourage insulin resistance and stress the pancreas.
3. OBESITY & ESTROGEN
There are usually little to no symptoms for insulin resistance, unless lab numbers are being checked. Unfortunately, weight gain and obesity present the most notable symptoms, which is also a direct indicator of some degree of insulin resistance. The visceral fat cells (around the organs) in the body can stimulate immune cells, and over time low levels of chronic inflammation develop. This constant inflammation and can damage cells and cell receptors that are necessary for the interaction with insulin, the cell, and glucose uptake. The progressive damage leads to insulin resistance, and the pancreas responds by trying harder and releasing more insulin. This additional insulin increases metabolic debris and chemicals that can cause more damage. Furthermore, the muscle cells get short-handed because the fat cells compete for insulin, and the insulin goes to the fat. Insulin is a storage hormone and the additional insulin encourages the conversion of glucose to more fat, creating a vicious cycle. The fat cells also store and produce estrogen. The beta cells of the pancreas have estrogen receptors, and excessive estrogen can exhaust the beta cells, which will interfere with insulin secretion. Estrogen is also highly taxing on the liver, which is deeply involved in balancing blood sugar levels. Therefore, excessive fat and estrogen create and drive further insulin resistance.
These concepts above highlight major contributing factors/reasons for insulin resistance. They can also be used as an outline for starting to address the problem. Anyone looking to overcome insulin resistance, or prevent it in the first place, needs to consider: stress management (various options here), avoiding PUFAs, and taking steps toward losing weight (in a healthy manner).
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