Dr Libby: Let’s Talk About Insulin Resistance (And How You Can Prevent It)

By Dr Libby Weaver
Collage / Julia Gessler

In this special series, guest writer Dr Libby Weaver shares her health insights.

Our blood glucose (sugar) levels can have an enormous impact on how we feel each day — from our mood and ability to be patient, to our energy and hunger levels.

Yet, it’s not just our day-to-day

Too much (or too little) glucose in the blood can have significant health consequences, so the body has a clever regulatory system to maintain your blood glucose within a certain range (called the “normal range” or “reference range”).

When blood glucose levels increase, which occurs after we eat or in response to stress, for example, a hormone called insulin is released. Insulin acts like a key to let some of the glucose inside the cells where it can be used as fuel. This ultimately results in less glucose remaining in the blood, bringing levels back within the normal range.

Insulin also moves glucose out of the blood and stores it as glycogen in the liver and muscles, so it can be returned to your blood when levels start to drop too low, as occurs overnight, for example.

If there is still more glucose in the blood that needs to be removed so the lining of your blood vessels doesn’t get damaged by the excess sugar, insulin will grab it and take it to be stored in fat cells, which have an infinite capacity to expand in size. This is one reason why insulin is considered a growth hormone or a fat-storage hormone.

What happens when you have insulin resistance

If you have insulin resistance, however, your cells resist the action of insulin or have a reduced sensitivity to it and the pancreas has to make more of this hormone to get the blood sugar-regulating message through. It’s as though some of the locks on the doors to your cells have changed.

Where once your body only needed, for example, five units of insulin to deal with five units of glucose, it now needs 10, so you are making twice the amount of insulin to keep your blood glucose level in the healthy range, causing your insulin to be constantly elevated.

Unless dietary changes are embraced, higher and higher insulin levels are unable to hold blood glucose levels inside the normal range, so they too become elevated. This leads to chronically elevated blood glucose levels, which are very damaging to the lining of blood vessels and organs.

The body is always doing its best to keep you safe though, so if insulin isn’t doing its job properly and blood glucose levels remain high, it will release more insulin to try to overcome the resistance thus perpetuating the vicious cycle.

This is why blood glucose measurements don’t always tell the full story. Your blood glucose levels may be within the normal range, but measuring this doesn’t tell us how hard the body is having to work to maintain it. Measuring both fasting insulin and fasting glucose in the blood, on the other hand, gives us more information to assess your blood glucose regulation.

The problem with excess insulin

Elevated insulin levels are problematic for numerous reasons. Excess insulin can make it more difficult to lose excess body fat and it can contribute to high androgen levels in females, which commonly occurs with polycystic ovarian syndrome.

There is a natural androgen dominance at menopause and this is exacerbated when there is insulin resistance think loss of hair from the head and an increase in facial hair.

Too much insulin on an ongoing basis can also lead to challenges with satiety as this disrupts the body being able to hear the signals sent by an appetite-regulating hormone called leptin.

If this isn’t enough, leptin resistance disrupts thyroid hormone actions, which can lead to symptoms of an underactive thyroid like fatigue, constipation and a slower metabolic rate major ripple effects stemming from too much insulin. Furthermore, if there is long-term insulin resistance, there is an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease diseases that will have a significant impact on your health and quality of life.

What you eat

Since it is usually lifestyle factors that lead to insulin resistance, the good news is that small changes to your choices and habits can add up to have a powerful effect. Let that empower you.

A nourishing way of eating is very important, as often it is what we are consuming that is the key driver behind elevated insulin levels.

Carbohydrates both starches and sugars are broken down into glucose so they elicit the biggest insulin response. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid carbohydrates they are a macronutrient vital to our health.

However, choosing your carbohydrate sources with care can make all the difference. Ultra-processed foods (and drinks), bakery goods and many takeaway options are usually laden with less nourishing and highly concentrated sugars in particular and are best minimised.

Instead, opt for carbohydrates when they come in whole, real food form. Root vegetables and wholegrains such as rice, for example.

It also helps to pair your carbohydrates with protein and/or whole food fats as this will reduce the insulin spike that eating them on their own would usually elicit. Additionally, it is best to avoid constantly grazing throughout the day to prevent the constant production of insulin.

Your stress levels

The stress hormone adrenaline can also increase blood glucose levels so prioritising stress management and reducing or eliminating caffeine (which triggers adrenaline production) can also help.

Consider your perceptions of pressure and urgency and adopt restorative practices such as breathwork, meditation and yoga that calm the nervous system.

Regular movement can help, with an emphasis on building or maintaining muscle mass through weight training, yoga, Pilates, taking the stairs, carrying groceries, gardening or farm work.

Your sleeping habits

Good-quality sleep and sufficient zinc levels are also crucial for a healthy insulin response.

It is incredibly important that we take steps to address insulin resistance if it is present or, ideally prevent it from happening in the first place, to reduce our risk of chronic diseases and to allow our extraordinary body to thrive now and into the future.

Dr Libby Weaver. Photo / Supplied
Dr Libby Weaver. Photo / Supplied

Dr Libby Weaver PhD is a nutritional biochemist, 13 times best-selling author and international keynote speaker. To learn more about managing insulin resistance and regulating blood sugar levels, join Dr Libby’s Shake Off Sugar online course at Drlibby.com

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