Avoid Insulin Resistance - get a grip on insulin’s ups and downs

Sarah Klein-Mark, R.D., C.N.S.D.

The endocrine system helps regulate the body’s metabolism through hormones. One of the most important hormones of the endocrine system is insulin. Insulin plays a critical role in how the body uses food.

After eating, the digestive system breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, commonly referred to blood sugar, which goes into the bloodstream. In response to the rise in glucose in the blood after a meal, the pancreas releases insulin, which helps redirect the glucose in the blood.

Insulin directs some of the glucose to the body's cells to be used for immediate energy; some is diverted to the liver, where it's converted into glycogen (stored glucose) for later use. Insulin then helps turn any leftover glucose in the blood into fatty acids to be stored in fat cells for use as a source of energy later in the day, week, year or in some cases never.

Problems arise when the body starts creating too much insulin, which can happen for several reasons. One of the most common is from eating too many highly processed, refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta and foods containing sugar. Such carbohydrates increase glucose or sugars in the blood dramatically. This in turn requires the body to send large amounts of insulin to clear sugar or glucose from the blood. If the blood sugar surge is really dramatic, i.e. eating refined carbohydrates on an empty stomach, insulin overreacts and works twice as hard. This overly efficient removal of sugar means blood sugar concentration drops – known as a sugar crash – which produces a sluggish feeling and the desire for more sugar/carbohydrates. And, the cycle starts again.

When the body’s muscles still have fuel from the last snack or meal, the insulin converts the new extra calories into fat. As long as large amounts of insulin remain in the blood, the body won't have a chance to tap into fat stores for fuel.

This cycle eventually can lead to insulin resistance, a condition in which the body produces insulin, but the cells become desensitized to it. As a result, the insulin can't do its job to lower the glucose in the blood. Insulin resistance is a precursor of Type 2 diabetes which is common among overweight people, can cause additional weight gain. Many people with insulin resistance have both high levels of glucose and insulin circulating in their blood at the same time.

Fortunately, insulin resistance can be prevented. The key is to maintain lower levels of insulin by eating whole foods, combining carbohydrates with protein and avoiding highly processed carbohydrates. When insulin-release mechanisms work correctly, the body’s weight is kept in check. When it's not working correctly it can lead to diabetes, obesity and other conditions.
So take control of insulin's ups and downs to maintain proper weight and energy levels. Restore the body's hormone power!

Sarah Klein-Mark, R.D., C.N.S.D., is a registered dietitian at Flagstaff Medical Center who specializes in obesity and obesity-related health concerns.