If you’ve been in the space of alternative health and wellness for a while, then you’ve likely heard the term ‘insulin resistance’ floating around.
But if not, I’m going to do that right now so your brain can stop screeching to a halt every time it reads that word.
What Does Insulin Do?
Insulin is a hormone. To put it quite simply, you can think of hormones as “body messengers” that communicate and respond to everything from hunger signals to reproduction, to emotions and a heck of a lot more. Because we are an intelligent and integrated feedback loop, some hormones have more than one, and/or, overlapping functions.
Insulin is produced in the pancreas (which is part of the endocrine system). Its major responsibility (which is uber important) is to help regulate blood sugar.
When you eat foods that contain any form of sugar, that sugar gets broken down into glucose. By the way, when I say that foods containing sugar I’m not just talking about sweet foods. I’m also talking about any carbohydrate (both simple and complex) containing foods. In this case, flavor is secondary to chemical make-up because that’s what ultimately determines how it’s going to be digested.
Let me give some examples of foods that will get broken down into glucose:
- Deserts: ice cream, cookies, cakes, pies, candy, dried fruit…
- Sweet drinks: gatorade, creamers, soda, koolaid, juices…
- Simple carbs: bread, pasta, crackers, cereals…
- Complex carbs: quinoa, oats, brown & wild rice, corn, sprouted wheats, plantains, cassava, turnips, squashes…
- Fiber-rich: most fruits, most vegetables, peas, beans, legumes
Those foods, the ones above and the others I didn’t have space to include, once simplified into glucose molecules (this is what we mean when we say blood sugar) are then escorted by insulin to the liver and muscle cells where they are stored for later use as a form of energy (down the line). This stored form of glucose is called glycogen. Provided everything on the inside is functioning the way it was designed to function, that is how this works. What I’ve described here is known as insulin sensitivity (which is a good thing).
However, if you overly consume those foods that break down into glucose (whether they be “healthy” or not) you can accidentally put yourself into a state of insulin resistance.
What is Insulin Resistance?
Insulin resistance isn’t a disease; it’s more a state of being in which insulin and glucose no longer maintain that working relationship I described above.
How does this happen? Well, let’s go back to the part where I was talking about the overconsumption of foods that break down into glucose. When you frequently eat too much sugar or too many carbs for your unique body to handle, your body in a sense becomes desensitized to it. Think Charlie Brown and the teacher he always used to drown out. That’s more or less what’s happening here.
The cycle that creates insulin resistances aka “The Dopamine Trap” goes something like this:
Eat too Much Sugar/Carbs → leads to → Chronically elevated levels of insulin → leads to → Elevated levels of serotonin → leads to → Elevated levels of dopamine (creating a sensation of temporary pleasure) → leads to → Sugar cravings + carb cravings + wild blood sugar highs and lows
You repeat this cycle over and over and over again.
But it doesn’t end there. As you continually seek to fulfill those cravings and receive peaks of temporary pleasure, the amount of sugar and carbohydrate you need in order to fulfill those demands increases.
Your body will eventually reach its threshold for dealing with all of this rubbish, which is the point at which insulin resists working as it’s normally supposed to. I know it’s called insulin resistance, but I almost wish it was called insulin confusion because that’s really what it is.
When insulin resistance happens, your muscle and liver cells say to insulin “Dude, we’re packed to the gills with glucose and literally about to burst. Find another place to store that glucose!”. Because of these rejections, insulin basically can’t keep up with the normal storage process (this is part of what creates the wild blood sugar highs and lows) and gets lost and confused. So then, your pancreas reasons “I got this! Give me a sec. I’ll just make some more insulin to help a sista’ out.”
However, those new insulin hormones fails as well, so you end up with both elevated blood glucose AND elevated insulin levels. That excess glucose that can’t get stored in the liver or muscle cells usually ends up getting deposited as fat.
Clearly, this whole process not only messes with your blood sugar regulation and your hormone balance – it also slows your metabolism waaay down and makes you gain weight.
As Dr. Sara Gottfried puts it in her book, The Hormone Reset Diet,
“Current science suggests that a calorie of carbohydrate is more fattening than a calorie of protein or fat because of the effect on insulin. Too many of the wrong carbs cause insulin resistance resistance. In fact, the solution to lasting weight loss is to maintain normal insulin levels.”
To be perfectly clear, we’re not bad mouthing carbs here. Although there are ways to survive, and for some, even thrive on extremely low carb diets, that’s not what we’re promoting here. I find that for myself and for my clients, a healthy diet that’s also enjoyable does include some carbohydrates and a little bit of sweetness.
What we’re doing here is simply painting a picture of what happens with the overconsumption of these foods which, unfortunately, is very common on the SAD.
Signs that Your Blood Sugar is Imbalanced
So, you understand all of that, and now you’re freaking out a little because you have a loved one who’s stuck in this cycle. There are a few things you can do:
- Send them this article
- Learn how to observe the symptoms of blood sugar imbalance
- Learn how to stabilize your blood sugar
Let’s start with the signs before we go on to the preventative strategies. You likely have imbalanced blood sugar and potentially insulin resistance if you have:
- Sugar cravings
- Carbohydrate cravings
- Hunger pangs
- Eating every 2-3 hours
- A waist larger than 35” (women) or 40” (men)
- PCOS, Irregular Periods, Infertility issues, or ovarian cysts
- A fasting insulin level above 5
If those sound familiar, first of all let me tell you that you’re not alone. I’ve been there and had to overcome many of the symptoms mentioned above (especially sugar cravings!). I’ve successfully overcome them and so have my clients, as well as tons of other people who’ve struggled with this. Don’t throw in the towel yet. Strategies are next.
How to Reverse Insulin Resistance
Although there are many ways to reverse insulin resistance and stabilize your blood sugar, these are three of the best and quickest strategies you can implement right away.
1. Eat More Fat & Slow-Burning Carbs
Reduce processed foods + sugars (read more on that in our post on Candida) and instead, eat more healthy fats (we’re including mostly saturated and unsaturated fats and absolutely NO processed PUFAs….in this list) & Slow-Burning Carbs. Below are some examples that you can easily add to your grocery list.
Health Promoting Fats
- Eggs yolks (pasture-raised)
- Bacon (pasture raised)
- Bone broth
- Coconut oil
- MCT oil
- Palm oil
- Butter (grass-fed)
- Olive oil
- Sprouted nuts/seeds + nut/seed butters
- Sweet potatoes
- Sprouted black rice
- Wild rice
- Properly soaked/sprouted chickpeas, adzuki beans, or lentils
2. Get Movin’
Increase your the amount of time you spend moving. It doesn’t all have to be intense bouts of exercise time either. It can just be increasing the amount of movement you do all throughout the day. If you work from home, take dance breaks. If you work from an office, take walking breaks and make sure to take the stairs! Maybe take your walk outside and grab some Vitamin D straight from the source.
Low impact movements count for a lot too. In fact, they’re actually really great at helping to stabilize blood sugar because they improve insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake (i.e. the body’s response to glucose).
According to Dr. David Perlmutter,
“In a study that was carried out way back in 2000, published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, it was revealed that physical exercise should be considered virtually ‘essential’ in terms of both treating and preventing insulin resistance.”
Make movement a regular practice and your days of waking up and shaking in the morning (from a severe drop in blood sugar) will be long gone.
3. Use Supplements that Stabilize
If you currently have diabetes, or are just transitioning off of a diet that’s been very high in processed foods and sugars, you may find that you need a little extra help. A lot of times, sugar cravings and other gut issues like candida and leaky gut can go hand in hand with chronic high blood sugar. This might mean that in order to curb those cravings and temporarily aid you as you’re making these changes, you need a little helping hand.
That’s where some good quality supplementation comes in. Three of my favorites for helping to both manage blood sugar and sugar cravings are:
- L-glutamine – an amino acid that speedily makes its way to the brain and becomes a quick source of energy
- Cinnamon – improves the effectiveness of insulin and increases glucose metabolism significantly (PS – great recipe over here on how to make cinnamon water to help stabilize your blood sugar)
- Bone Broth – rich in glycine, an amino acid that controls how much glucose is produced from non-carb sources which helps immensely when it comes to regulating blood sugar levels
If I were you, I’d start with strategy #1 and build upon that, unless of course you’re the all or nothing type, in which case, go for them all!
Delfina is the spirited nutrition + movement coach and alternative health blogger behind Code to Wellness. She uses her #eatmovethink method to help clients reclaim their health & thrive in their bodies.