One of the buzz phrases thrown around the health industry lately is ‘metabolic health’.
What we mean when we use this term is; The condition of our metabolisms is often a key indicator of our total health. That is your metabolism can be ‘healthy’ or working for you or it can work against you.
Insulin resistance is the precursor to type two diabetes. It’s like the first warning sign that your bodies metabolic processes are struggling to appropriately deal with the food – or types of food – you are ingesting.
Popular culture has diluted the term ‘metabolism’ down to some variation on ‘how many calories the body burns per day’. However, energy expenditure is only one aspect of your metabolism.
Metabolism is actually every chemical process of every single cell in your body. When we refer to ‘metabolic health’ what we mean is the function of every cell in your body. Proper cell function produces proper endocrine function, which produces homeostasis and metabolic health.
Exercise, appropriate energy balance, sleep, sunlight and good nutrition all affect your body on a cellular level. Supporting proper cellular function supports health at every level.
Our approach to health must be expansive and systemic, and not fixate on only one or two aspects of cellular function. Only when the SYSTEM is healthy is metabolic health achieved.
Three main illnesses related to improper metabolic health include insulin resistance, obesity and diabetes.
There is a growing shift in conventional medicine towards diagnosing and treating metabolic conditions. The problem is, while the link between metabolism, weight loss and general health is huge, it’s a very vague and under-stressed concept among the general public.
Insulin and your body.
When it comes to metabolic conditions and weight loss the culprit is almost always insulin. Insulin is also a significant factor in women’s hormonal health including PCOS, acne, progesterone deficiency and heavy periods.
Maintaining a healthy insulin balance is how you reduce inflammation and manage your long-term risk for type two diabetes, coronary disease and a raft of other pressing health concerns including cancer.
This is all well and good, but how do you know if you have a healthy insulin balance? Do you know if you have insulin resistance? If you don’t know, here’s some tips for how you might find out, and how you can reverse it.
What is Insulin Resistance
Under homeostasis – or normal conditions -, your body produces a hormone called insulin which rises briefly after eating. It stimulates your liver and muscle cells to take up sugar from your bloodstream and convert it to glucose which can be used by your body as energy.
This causes your blood sugar to fall, and then your insulin to fall.
When you are ‘insulin-sensitive’ – or your body responds well to the slight changes of insulin in your system and can adjust appropriately – both your sugar and insulin are low on a fasting blood test.
When you are insulin resistant, both your sugar and insulin are high on a fasting blood test. This is because your liver and muscle cells do not respond properly to insulin. They cannot take up sugar from your bloodstream, so your sugar stays high.
High insulin generates inflammation and pushes calories into fat storage. This is especially true in your liver. High levels of insulin are a contributing factor in fatty liver disease. High insulin can also prevent regular ovulation and stimulates your ovaries to make too much testosterone, hence it is a major factor in women with PCOS infertility or early menopause. In men, it can negatively affect the balance of stress and sex hormones leading to Oestrogen dominance and symptoms like mid-section weight gain, low libido or the dreaded “man boobs”.
According to Naturopathic Doctor, Lara Briden, Insulin resistance is common and affects at least 1 in 4 adults. It is also referred to as prediabetes or metabolic syndrome.
How do I diagnose Insulin Resistance?
The gold standard marker for diagnosing Insulin Resistance is a fasting blood glucose test. Ask your doctor for the test and be sure to ask for insulin readings as well. You will consume a drink containing glucose and have your bloods drawn one hour later.
When looking at the results read the blood sugar reading and the insulin reading. A healthy insulin response in your fasting insulin reading should be less that 60 pmol/L (10 mu/L). One hour after the sugar challenge, your insulin should be less than 270 pmol/L (45 mu/L). A higher insulin can indicate insulin resistance.
Another marker for insulin resistance is your waist measurement. In individuals with insulin resistance fat is commonly deposited around the midriff.
In females the risk of Insulin resistance increases with a waist measurement of 80cm or more, and 90cm in males.
Lastly, improperly functioning insulin levels will also result in sugar cravings, mood swings, heavier periods in females and definitive highs and lows with energy throughout the day.
So, if you are at risk of Insulin Resistance, what can be done about it?
There are four key strategies to reversing Insulin Resistance
These are outlined by Dr Lara Briden in detail:
Remove sugar from your diet.
According to a study published in the US National Library of Medicine, no other food impairs insulin sensitivity more than high doses of fructose.
Fructose is a type of carbohydrate found in sugar. In table sugar, sucrose, there are two components. Glucose, which can be used by your cells for energy, and fructose which is stored in your liver as fat. Because Insulin sensitivity relies on the cells in your liver and muscles to take up blood sugar and convert it in to energy, a compromised liver cannot perform this task.
Giving up sugar means no dessert, biscuits, cake and lollies. It also means no ‘natural’ or ‘healthy’ sugars that still contain fructose. No honey, agave, maple syrup, dried fruit or delicious raw vegan or paleo desserts. It’s not forever, but if you’re watching your sugar intake, you need to watch all of it. You can include whole fruit. While this still contains fructose, it is paired with fibre which slows the release of sugar into your bloodstream, thus making it easier for your liver to process. Fruits like blueberries, blackberries, honeydew melon, green kiwifruit, lemons, limes, grapefruit and green apples are good low-fructose options.
Giving up sugar initially is tough. But I promise you, it is worth it!
Build muscle mass.
According to another study in the US National Library of Medicine, The more muscle you have, the more sensitive it will be to insulin.
This is especially so the younger you are. This is important because current guidelines around movement and obesity in children and teenagers don't specify any type of exercise just time and frequency – 30 minutes a day. Moreover, cardio is still pedalled as the go-to option for most school physical education programmes.
Perhaps strength training is the answer?
Fortunately, our bodies respond very quickly to strength training. In this study, after just a few weeks of regular strength exercise, insulin sensitivity can increase by up to 24%.
– Don’t be afraid of weight training. As women, we tend to think it will make us look bulky. As Katie has talked about, this isn’t the case.
– You can sign up for the gym, or you can start smaller than that, and still see improvement.
– Walk around the block.
– Climb stairs.
– Carry some gentle hand-weights.
– Just get started.
Lastly, prioritise sleep.
Medicinal News Today reported that just four nights of bad sleep – classified as less than 4.5 hours – can reduce insulin sensitivity by 30%.
For most of us, we often operate on 5 or 6 hours sleep for months or even years. Mothers with young children are especially prone. There isn’t a lot you can do about broken sleep in this scenario, but you can try going to bed earlier or minimising other stress factors in your life to mitigate this shortfall. The reality is we all need 7-8 hours a night. Where possible schedule it in.
Fasting sounds scary but is actually any period of time where you stop ingesting calories to give your body time to digest and process the food you have consumed. From an insulin perspective, your body cannot find a home for, or clear, the insulin hormone circulating in your blood if we give it a steady stream of food to process – especially if that food is sugar or refined carbohydrates.
Fasting could simply mean no snacking – so giving your body three meals a day. It could mean an extended fast anywhere from 16 hours or more. Many people practice eating in a condensed window to allow a solid period of time for their metabolism to repair. This means eating all your meals – while not restricting calories – in a 6 or 8-hour window and fasting the remaining 16-18 hours.
So there you have it. Insulin Resistance isn’t just a medical term thrown around. It is serious and scientific research is really only just scratching the surface of it’s effects to your body.
If you suspect you have it, talk to your GP. It’s not a life sentence. According to Dr Briden, it can be reversed within 3 months. However, it can lead you down the road of type two diabetes if you’re not careful.
Implement some of the tips above, with a healthy fat, low carbohydrate diet, and you’ll make great strides to improving your health.