Insulin Resistance: the health condition that might be at the root of your chronic fatigue and weight gain
-Jun 13, Dr Sara Palmer Hussey, PhD, Health -
One reason why we may be gaining weight and feeling tired and rundown is a condition known as insulin resistance. Insulin resistance stops the fuel we eat from getting into our cells to be turned into energy and facilitates instead its storage as fat.
So what is insulin and why do our cells become resistant to it?
Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas that is triggered by a rise in blood glucose levels when we eat. Insulin works to lower blood glucose by promoting its transport from the blood stream into cells. Cells, in turn, use glucose as fuel to generate energy. This action helps blood glucose levels remain stable and provides cells with the fuel they need to produce energy.
Prolonged, high levels of insulin caused by prolonged, high levels of glucose in the diet, cause our cells to become desensitised or resistant to the signal of insulin dropping off glucose and they do not allow it in. As a result, blood glucose levels remain high triggering the release of more insulin, which further desensitises cells’ responsiveness to insulin.
The first cells to become resistant or desensitized to insulin are muscle cells and the last are fat cells. Therefore, insulin resistance promotes a tendency towards fat storage, energy decline and the breakdown of muscles. Once this cycle starts, it can be difficult to reverse. It is characterized by chronic fatigue (fuel-starved cells are unable to produce energy), weight gain, chronic inflammation and accelerated ageing.
Insulin is like a train that picks up fuel (glucose in the blood) and delivers it to various stations (the cells). Insulin resistant cells are like stations that are closed, so the train has to keep moving until it finds a station that is open (this might be a fat cell) where it can offload the glucose. As more glucose enters the system to be delivered, the system has to issue more trains to cope with the influx because the current trains haven’t finished delivering their load. The result is a network that is accumulating inefficiency as it gets clogged up and slowed down with too many trains loaded down with fuel and no stations at which to offload. The stations, although closed, need the fuel to function, so if they get continually passed by, they will have to close down permanently.
What are the symptoms of insulin resistance?
• Constant hunger
• Sugar or carbohydrate cravings
• Sugar crashes
• Brain fog
• Weight gain especially around the waist
• High blood pressure
If you have ticked more than a couple of the above points, you probably have some degree of insulin resistance. Unfortunately, most of us are insulin resistant to some degree because of our long-term exposure to refined carbohydrates that rapidly flood into the blood stream causing spikes in blood glucose levels, requiring more insulin and reducing our cells’ sensitivity.
Why is it serious?
Insulin resistance is a precursor to diabetes and increases the risk of heart disease, obesity, breast cancer, skin disorders and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
As insulin resistance tips the balance from energy production into energy storage, all systems are affected and become characterised by inefficiency, imbalance, inflammation and accelerated ageing.
What can I do to heal it and prevent it?
Awareness is the first key to prevention and healing. If we monitor what we are eating and, in particular, how often we are spiking our blood glucose levels and triggering insulin with simple carbohydrates, such as white bread, pastries and refined sugar, we can learn to limit excessive spikes of insulin production and reduce the risk of insulin resistance. A balanced diet that is mainly made up of protein, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes should keep glucose and insulin levels within a healthier range.
Exercise is another important component to help insulin levels stay normal, maintain hormonal balance and regulate metabolic function. Weight gain increases insulin resistance, while exercise mobilises fat stores and the flow of fuel into cells for energy production.
Certain key nutrients can also help prevent insulin resistance. Omega-3 fatty acids are faithful allies in the fight against insulin resistance. They significantly increase insulin sensitivity at the cellular membrane by increasing the fluidity and permeability of the cell membrane. They also attenuate the pro-inflammatory effects of excess insulin.
Magnesium helps to prevent and correct insulin resistance. It is an important muscle relaxant and a critical mineral required for sustaining the permeability of cell membranes, allowing glucose into the cell for energy production and lowering blood glucose levels.
So, the best way to control insulin resistance, therefore, is through diet, exercise and targeted nutritional supplements.