Too Dang Much Insulin
Too Dang Much Insulin!
In my last post on cholesterol, we landed squarely on the first contributor to most chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease. That would be hyperinsulinemia (too dang much insulin).
The other small player is your genes. Most of us have no clue about our genes. But since doing the right thing (lifestyle and nutrition wise) usually minimizes any negative impact of our genes, we can just focus here on insulin.
Should only diabetics worry?
Most of us know something about diabetes and are pretty sure that insulin is somehow attached to it. And we would be right. Further, since about 2/3 of our population is either diabetic (or about to be) it is tempting to think that diabetes is all that matters. Overcome that temptation because that would just be wrong.
According to PubMed, “Insulin and its signaling systems are implicated in both central and peripheral mechanisms governing the ingestion, distribution, metabolism, and storage of nutrients.” If that sounds too fancy, here is what it means. Insulin is affecting everything that goes on.
Insulin in excess (or actually even deficient) messes up everything and makes you sick. So let’s see if we can make this simple. Why would insulin be in excess?
Here is normal.
- The glucose in your food (from carbohydrates) is absorbed into your cells, used immediately for energy, and/or stored in the cells for later use without much need for insulin.
- A small portion of that glucose will be picked up and stored in your liver, also for later use.
- Any glucose not used or stored is converted to fat by the liver and stored, with the aid of insulin, in fat cells.
- The protein you ate (which is now broken down into amino acids) uses insulin to be absorbed into your cells.
- Any fat you eat is absorbed into your cells if needed or also stored, with the help of insulin, in fat cells for future energy use.
- The same insulin also keeps fat already in your fat cells firmly in place.
Take note. Insulin is busy stuff.
Call for Insulin.
The required insulin for all of those processes was signaled-for (called for) the minute you ate or actually even thought about eating. The pancreas made the insulin. Interestingly the one thing that usually requires the least insulin (cell glucose absorption) will get you into trouble eventually. Your muscle cells have just so much glucose storage room and any extra required will be provided from the liver.
When the amount of glucose present in the blood is in excess, more insulin is signaled-for to get the dang glucose to be accepted somewhere. Insulin levels in your blood go up in order to keep the amount of sugar floating around in your blood from going too high. This works really well for the occasional “too much,” – not well at all for persistently high excess energy.
Maybe there is some excess (actually you can count on it) that just can’t be immediately used. Your liver (the designated hitter) takes all the excess and packages it up for storage in your body fat (the storage port of last resort). And then trusty insulin unlocks the door and pushes the fat in.
And then things start south!
In the beginning, increases in insulin level keep blood sugar nicely under control, albeit by conversion into fat. And then this interesting thing starts to happen. The insulin keeps racing through your blood stream and damages your organs, – your heart, your nerves, etc. Insulin resistance develops big time, particularly a problem in the liver, pancreas, and fat cells.
The resistance allows blood sugar levels to go higher. The poor pancreas’ ability to make more insulin is damaged. Hormonal signaling gets confused. The liver can “dump” more glucose from storage into the bloodstream at the worst possible time. Gets really messy!
This even applies to fat cells that grow insulin resistant when they reach their fat threshold (capacity). Consequently the insulin fails to hold fat in place when blood sugar is high. You aren’t supposed to have fat and glucose in the bloodstream at the same time. That combination will make you sick quickly.
Sooner or later blood sugar gets high enough that your trusty doctor diagnoses you with diabetes. Along with the high insulin, your persistently high blood sugar has been doing damage to organ, nerve, blood vessels all on its own. As you can see, storage hasn’t been working correctly for a long time. It is the inevitable damage to the blood vessels which escalates any risk associated with high LDL cholesterol.
How to keep this from happening to you.
Remember, this all started a long time ago with excess glucose (sugar) in your diet. That excess is almost invariably delivered from processed food made from grain like wheat (as in bread, pasta, crusts, breading, anything made from flour), corn, and sugar. It isn’t uncommon for American’s to consume 60% or more of their food from commercially processed food. The more you reduce those foods in your diet, the better off you are.
Is food all that matters?
Insulin is a hormone but only one of a very long list. Messed up hormones will increase blood sugar and insulin. Lousy sleep, persistent stress, (and sundry medications, especially those used to reduce inflammation in joints and such) make for messy hormones. Spend some time figuring out how to improve your sleep and reduce your stress. I will write more about that at some future point.
For sure, when you have messy hormones, diet control will be all the more important for fixing the mess.
Can I test how high my insulin is?
I wish it were that easy. Testing insulin is harder, more expensive, and doctors are often reluctant. Testing blood sugar is easy. You can do it at home.
- Absent the ability to test insulin, testing blood sugar after a normal meal will give you a clue. My book provides specifics on testing and how to interpret the results.
- A diet containing a lot of processed, refined foods will automatically increase insulin demand. The higher your blood sugar after a meal, the higher your insulin has to go to respond to that sugar. You may have slipped past hyperinsulinemia and have already reached the point of insulin resistance and high blood sugar. You won’t know until you test.
- Meters and strips to accomplish testing do not require a prescription or have to be expensive. I use WalMart Relion Prime.
- Follow the dietary guidelines in my book. Test your blood sugar after meals periodically with the intent of assuring that everything is under control.
The most obvious evidence of lots of insulin is body fat. Insulin seems to just live to pack fat away in your fat cells. So one little side benefit of diet change is you can prevent or reduce any extra body fat you might like to see gone.
Pat Smith is the author of “It’s All about the Food,” a book that guides nutritious food choices as the way to avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight. Proceeds from her book benefit the Montgomery County Food Pantry. She is a resident of Montgomery County, AR, president of Ouachita Village, Inc. board of directors (Montgomery County Food Pantry), and member of the Mount Ida Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors.