Insulin Resistance

Are you struggling to lose weight?  Low energy?  Food cravings?  Chronic health issues?

You may be insulin resistant.  It’s pretty common, particularly for women who can have a hard time losing body fat, despite exercising and a “good diet”.

What is Insulin Resistance?

When we eat sugar or any food that breaks down into sugar in the body, this elevates the body's glucose levels (blood sugar). The pancreas releases insulin which alerts glucose receptors to open.  Then, it is either taken up into the cell immediately to be used for energy, or gets stored in the liver as glycogen which can be used at a later date as needed.  Or, it gets stored as fat in the cell.

Here’s the thing – a lot of the time many people’s cells are bursting with glucose already so any extra that comes into the system will be stored as fat, in the liver (causing fatty liver) or on the body.

The body has about 1 teaspoon approximately of glucose circulating in the blood stream at any one time.  We don’t need as much as you think.

Every time you eat sugar or a food that gets broken down into sugar, including starches, then your body goes through the process described above. If you are continually ingesting foods that force the body to go through this process, then over time there is too much sugar for the pancreas to handle. Each time it detects sugar in the blood stream, then it releases insulin. The liver can only store a certain amount of glycogen in the liver so ultimately the sugar keeps getting stored in the cell as fat.

Eventually this process can result in insulin resistance.  This is when the body doesn’t react to insulin correctly, and the pancreas has to produce more insulin in order to keep the blood sugar levels stable.

Long term elevated insulin causes a cascade of inflammatory chemicals and high cortisol and gives you a higher risk for many conditions including diabetes, heart disease, auto-immune conditions, nerve pain, fatty liver, hormone imbalances and neurotransmitter imbalances.  All of these can lead to rapid degeneration of the body and brain.

Signs and symptoms of blood sugar dysregulation:
  • Fatigue and drowsiness after meals
  • Increased appetite and thirst
  • Constant hunger, craving sugar or carbohydrate rich foods
  • General fatigue
  • Abdominal obesity and higher levels of body fat overall
  • Fluid retention
  • Skin tags
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood lipids
  • Frequent urination
  • Difficulty losing weight
  • Migrating aches and pains
  • Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
  • Trouble falling asleep/insomnia

You may only have a couple of these symptoms to have insulin resistance.  It can take 10 – 15 years before you are actually diagnosed insulin resistance or pre-diabetic/diabetic.  The standard blood tests usually only measure glucose, not your insulin.  In the early stages your blood glucose might look ok on paper.  This may be because the pancreas is doing its job of pumping out lots of insulin to bring those blood sugars down (storing the excess as fat in the liver or on your thighs!).

The other test that is performed when blood sugars start to rise on a blood test is the HBA1c test which is a measurement of your average level of blood sugars over the last 2 – 3 months. Again, the pancreas may be doing a super job of pumping out that insulin so this result can look normal on a pathology test.  Same goes for the glucose tolerance test.

So, if you think you may have insulin resistance it would be beneficial to have a range of testing done.  This includes testing for inflammation, Lipid profile, fasting glucose tolerance test with at least 3 x fasting insulin. Another useful test is the HOMA Index test, (Homeostatic Model Assessment of Insulin Resistance.) This calculation marks for both the presence and extent of any insulin resistance that you might currently express.

It is a great idea to get baseline testing done particularly if you are resistant to losing weight and following up 3 months later to check on progress.

How do Insulin Levels affect your Weight?

Insulin is known as the “fat storage hormone”.  Long term high levels of insulin send a message to the body to “store fat and not build muscle”.

So, weight loss can be difficult with insulin resistance, as higher levels of insulin in the body means that more fat is being stored.

So, to put it simply: Insulin resistance causes weight gain, and it is almost impossible to lose this weight before the insulin resistance is under control.

The blood sugar-regulating hormone is like “the main switch that turns fat storage on and turns fat burning off”. The more insulin, the more weight gain. So, if you are dealing with stubborn weight that refuses to come off, you may have high insulin.

The evidence is that a low carbohydrate, moderate protein diet is perfect for lowering insulin levels and healing the pancreas, reducing inflammation and taking the stress off the liver and improving overall body health.

So, if you are following a low carbohydrate diet and not seeing results this may be because your body is used to having a lot of carbohydrates and/or sugars and insulin remains high, even if you have been following the diet for several weeks.  This happens because that is what the body is used to, “a learned response”, so the body will make glucose even if not available from protein or in the liver through a process known as gluconeogenesis. The body actually goes into a stress response when not enough glucose is available so it will make it out anything it can.  Insulin stays high.

The longer you have been insulin resistant, often the more sensitive you are to carbohydrates.  So, even a very small amount of carbohydrate or sugars could send blood sugars and insulin soaring.  Even if the carbohydrate is consumed with fat and protein which slows down the release of sugars, this could happen.  This is not the case for everyone, we are very different in our physiology but often the higher the level of insulin (result from pathology testing) and the longer you have been insulin resistant, the more sensitive you are to carbohydrates.

It takes time for the diet to work, to heal the pancreas, to bring the insulin down, reduce the inflammation and improve liver function.  This could take weeks to months before you see results with weight loss which can make many people “give up, the diet is not working”, particularly when they see no weight loss on the scales.  They then go back to old habits and then re-start with yet another weight loss diet down the track, yet to fail again, “the diet doesn’t work”.

If you only stick to the eating plan during the week and then have a day off on the weekend with high carbohydrates and/or sugars this may well put you right back to the start again (if you are insulin resistant).

It can also be hard to stay on track with family and friends and social engagements and our general busy life so it is important to have some strategies in place, particularly in the first weeks. 

It is also important not to get too caught up with weighing yourself constantly.  As inflammation reduces, less visceral fat (fat around organs) and less fluid retention often this does not show up on the scales as weight loss.  Weight goes up and down daily and can change as much as 2kg at a time.  It is much better to do the “pants test” – find a pair of pants that are tight and then try them on a couple of weeks or so into the healthy eating plan.  Weighing yourself constantly and not seeing results can be emotionally draining and steer you off track.

So, stick with it, remind yourself that you are healing the whole body and reducing inflammation.  Use this as the focus.  Weight loss, if that is the goal will definitely happen along with increased energy, motivation and mood.  How great does that sound!