Insulin is a hormone that’s produced in the pancreas and is essential for regulating blood sugar levels. The body breaks down our food into glucose, and insulin helps this energy source enter the cells of our muscles, fat and liver. Insulin also signals the liver to store glucose for future use, so that we’re able to utilize the energy from our food over the periods when we’re not consuming more. With normal, healthy function, the body is signalled to decrease insulin production as blood sugar enters the cells and levels in our bloodstream begin to drop – this is known as insulin sensitivity.
What is insulin resistance?
Insulin resistance – which is essentially a breakdown in this communication – occurs when your cells stop responding as they should to the insulin levels in your body. When your cells are unable to efficiently uptake the glucose in your blood, the pancreas will produce more insulin in an attempt to balance out your blood sugar levels. Once the liver and muscles are filled up with the level of glucose they’re able to manage, the excess is sent to fat cells where it’s stored as body fat. It’s also stored in the liver as triglycerides, which is a contributing factor to fatty liver disease. When we get stuck in insulin resistance, not only are we faced with stubborn weight gain, but the body actually becomes more susceptible to disease and dysfunction.
What are the risks?
Insulin resistance is most commonly linked to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, but it is also associated with:
- cardiovascular disease
- nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- metabolic syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is a combination of conditions that increase the risk of stroke, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar, abnormal levels of triglycerides and/or cholesterol, and excess body fat around the waist.
What are the symptoms?
Unfortunately, many people who experience insulin resistance will live with it for years if they don’t make some important changes to their diet and lifestyle. And the reality is that many people are already insulin resistant and simply don’t know it. The symptoms can be easy to miss (or connect to insulin resistance as a cause) but over time, the pancreas becomes more overwhelmed and the symptoms are more difficult to ignore; they include:
- Difficulty feeling satiated after a meal
- Increased thirst
- Food cravings
- More frequent urination
- Vaginal and skin infections
- Fatigue and low energy
- Slower healing of cuts or sores
- Hormonal imbalance
- Sleep disturbances
Other symptoms that are sometimes caused by insulin resistance can be a sign of prediabetes, and should be discussed with your healthcare provider; they include:
- Skin tags
- Darkened patches of skin around the armpits or back and sides of the neck
- Visual changes that may point to diabetes-related retinopathy
In rare cases, insulin resistance may be the result of genetic conditions or hormone disorders (and can even result temporarily from using steroid creams and certain medications); however, the major leading causes appear to be excess body fat (particularly around the belly) and a lack of physical activity.
How do you test for insulin resistance?
This highly common metabolic disorder is estimated to affect about 1 in 3 Canadians and is thought to be under diagnosed. While there isn’t routine testing for insulin resistance, there are a number of factors that should be looked at when considering this diagnosis. Your practitioner will review your family history and medical history along with your symptoms, and will likely perform some lab work to assess the following:
- Fasting glucose levels
- Hemoglobin A1c
- Uric acid
- Lipid panel
These factors will help determine your risk for prediabetes, your average blood glucose levels over the past three months, as well as your cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
How is insulin resistance treated?
The good news about insulin resistance is that it’s usually reversible with the right approach, which is primarily about lifestyle modification. Our health and wellness is directly connected to the choices we make on a daily basis, and this metabolic disorder is a prime example of the dysfunction that can result when we’re not taking care of ourselves properly. To encourage metabolic fitness and flexibility and restore harmony in the body, we have to start with the basics – diet and exercise.
Regular, moderate exercise is crucial in improving insulin sensitivity – just one activity session can increase glucose uptake by more than 40%. Beyond the immediate effects of adding movement to your life, this regular activity will support your fat loss efforts over time.
When looking at nutrition, it’s helpful to start by eliminating the foods that will contribute to insulin resistance – remove (or reduce as much as possible) your sugar, unhealthy fat, processed foods and carbohydrate intake. Focus on including more vegetables, fruit, protein and healthy fats, and keep an eye on your portions, as well as how frequently you’re eating.
Fasting for insulin sensitivity and metabolic flexibility
Fasting is a powerful tool for stabilizing blood sugar levels and improving insulin sensitivity. While there are a number of different methods and approaches, fasting is essentially abstaining from food for a particular period of time. In our latest post on the Divine Elements blog, we covered the basics of fasting and the science behind this ancient healing practice – start there to learn everything you need to know before beginning a fast.
Fasting is not about deprivation – it’s about creating more mindfulness around when, what and how much we’re eating as we cultivate an environment that’s more attuned to healing and renewal. When we fast, the body first uses stored glucose for energy, followed by fat, which it turns into ketones. This process is known as ketosis and typically occurs around 48 hours of fasting; however, this varies for each individual.
Fasting signals the process of autophagy – the physiological mechanism of clearing debris and damaged cells to encourage cellular repair – after a period of about 2-4 days. The body has incredible regenerative ability when it receives the right signals. Fasting upregulates autophagy, more effectively clearing toxins and waste that may otherwise lead to neurodegenerative disease.
Upgrade your metabolic health
Next week, we begin a new session of our very popular Metabolic Upgrade program, which is typically offered seasonally as the practice of fasting is well-aligned with the transitional period of changing seasons. This is an opportunity to deepen our connection to our bodies and ourselves, as well as to examine our relationships with food, activity, thought processes and patterns, and the people in our lives.
If you’d like to learn more about fasting and insulin resistance, join our free masterclass on Tuesday, September 27th at 5pm (PST)
Save your spot for the upcoming 4-week online Metabolic Upgrade program HERE.