Is insulin a hero or a villain?

There is more to insulin than what meets the eye. As long as you are sensitive to the insulin it is your best friend but resistance to insulin sets a vicious circle of overdose and the friend morphs into a foe! Still, wondering is insulin a hero or a villain, the answer is both.

Often, insulin, a hormone secreted by the beta cells of the pancreas and diabetes are spoken in the same breath, but there is more to insulin than managing diabetes. Insulin casts significant effects on the body because when it speaks your body listens attentively.

The role of insulin in our body

Whenever you eat food, your pancreas releases insulin into the blood a signal for the liver, muscles and the fat cells to absorb the sugar from the bloodstream.  As the sugar gets slowly absorbed into cells, insulin levels continue to drop, until finally all the excess sugar gets cleaned up from the bloodstream, and insulin levels then remain steady at a low, ‘baseline’ level.

Beyond managing blood sugar, the ‘not-so-loved’ love handles take the cue from insulin to store fat. One of the vital roles of insulin is fat storage by inhibiting the breakdown of fatty cells and promoting fat storage.  

What is insulin resistance

In insulin resistance syndrome, the muscle and liver cells become resistant to the insulin floating in the bloodstream. Since the released insulin is unable to send the message to the body to absorb the sugar from the blood, more insulin gets secreted, which help glucose enter cells.  Insulin resistance is a reversible condition if prompt action is taken at the right time.

Signs and symptoms of insulin resistance

  • Dark patches on the back of neck, groin, and armpits
  • Apple shaped belly
  • Buffalo Hump
  • Craving for carbohydrate-rich foods
  • Fatigue

Top 7 side effects of high insulin

The more than necessary insulin in the bloodstream increases the risk of high triglycerides, high blood pressure, and obesity, a set of conditions known as prediabetes. Though insulin resistance is not the same as diabetes, in the long run, it manifests into diabetes. The other side effects of elevated insulin are:

  • Obesity

Obesity is an established risk to good health, but it discriminates. The pear-shaped obesity poses less health risk than the apple-shaped one. The gut or the belly fat is the hardest to lose and is an indicator of hyperinsulinemia (high-level of insulin).

High insulin makes carbohydrate craving a self-fueling cycle. After consuming processed carbohydrates, insulin level goes up signaling fat cells to store fat and other cells to burn carbohydrates for fuel. The storage of sugar as fat makes a person feel hungry and crave for more carbohydrates. This creates a vicious cycle of large carbohydrate consumption, high insulin levels, high fat storage and big weight gain! Further, conversion of sugar to fat is a one way street as sugar can be converted into fat but not vice versa.

  1. Type 2 Diabetes

Prediabetes and insulin resistance are intimately linked. Belly fat or (visceral obesity) releases adipokines (cell signaling proteins) that impairs insulin sensitivity in liver and muscle. Thereby, higher insulin levels are required to maintain the normal blood sugar levels, and at some point, the pancreas gives up.  Now the insulin production is unable to keep pace with elevated sugar levels in the blood leading to type 2 diabetes.

  1. PCOS

It has been clearly established that profound insulin resistance and PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) are closely associated. PCOS is characterized by the high level of androgen or male hormones in a female body. High insulin increases the bioactivity of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor or IGF-1. IGF-1 in PCOS stimulates the synthesis of male hormones and reduces the availability of sex hormones to tissues. It is linked to all features of  PCOS like reproductive disorders, acne, hirsutism and metabolic disturbances.

  1. Alzheimer’s: Type 3 Diabetes

Research scientists now refer Alzheimer’s as type 3 diabetes. Diabetics are twice more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. For years researchers believed that the brain was insensitive to insulin, but now it has clearly accepted that insulin has a role in learning and memory.

Insulin resistance causes less availability of blood sugar in the parts of the brain most susceptible to Alzheimer’s. When brain cells are deprived of glucose, their only source of energy, they are unable to function fully.  Over a period of time neurons degenerate resulting in memory and cognitive loss.

  1. Fatty Liver

Fatty liver is a result of the vicious cycle of high carb, high insulin, high-fat storage and resultant insulin resistance. Insulin pushes glucose into the liver cells, gradually filling them up. The liver converts this excess glucose to fat, the storage form of food energy. Too much glucose, and too much insulin, over too long a period of time, leads to fatty liver. Most of the people disregard fatty liver as it shows up in the test results only after a large part of it has been damaged.

  1. Tumours and Cancers

Skin tags, tumors, fibroids and many forms of cancers are also linked to high insulin.  These conditions are related to the role of the insulin as a growth factor. While high insulin in cells triggers more rapid cell division,  a presence of high sugar and fat provide metabolic fuel to cell division. Along the way, some cells lose control of their DNA regulatory genes and become malignant. Hyperinsulinemia is said to be responsible for colon cancer, stomach cancer, cancer of female reproductive organs and prostate cancer.

  1. Aging

Insulin resistance is making you age faster. The extra sugar idling in the bloodstream binds to elastin and collagen, proteins, which are the building blocks of the skin. The cumulative effect of extra glucose shows in wrinkles, sagging, dark circles under eyes and it invites diabetes. Also, extra glucose suppresses the human growth hormone.

Fasting plasma insulin test

As hyperinsulinemia is a root cause of many chronic ailments, it is important to keep it in check. A fasting plasma insulin, fasting sugar, and postprandial sugar tests can tell you whether you have hyperinsulinemia or likelihood of developing it. Kindly ensure you get these tests done on an annual basis.

How to reverse insulin resistance?

The easiest steps are usually the toughest to do. Workout till you break a sweat and sleep for solid hours daily. Since any weight loss battle is incomplete without changing the diet, you need to work on unraveling the complex relationship between insulin and carbs.

The staples of insulin resistance diet are complex carbohydrates, high-quality proteins, and good quality fats. The essential steps are:

  1. Refined carbs are processed foods, such as bakery products, simple sugar, donuts. Keep them out of your pantry.
  2. There are certain foods that improve insulin sensitivity, like vinegar, green tea, nuts, and spices. Include them when you are having a carb bonanza.
  3. Focus on high-quality fats, like nuts, flax seeds, olive oil, fish oil in your diet every day to improve insulin sensitivity.
  4. Eat foods that are rich in fiber to slow down the release of carbohydrates in the blood.

To conclude, insulin is a vital hormone and is plays an important role in the growth and basic metabolic functions. It becomes hero or villain within the context of your diet and lifestyle.  A western MacDonald high carbohydrate, red meat, processed food diet causes hyperinsulinemia, whereas a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meat, nuts and omega-3 fatty acids helps to maintain its optimal level. It is up to you to create the right context for your health and longevity.