by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Insulin resistance is a greatly misunderstood health problem among women. Many women have the mistaken belief that insulin resistance only happens in those who are overweight or in those who eat too many sweets, or that it leads inevitably to diabetes, or that there is nothing they can do about it if they’re insulin resistant. While it’s true that all kinds of women are insulin resistant — or well on their way — the wonderful news is that insulin resistance is something we can prevent and even reverse naturally!
Reversing insulin resistance is really a matter of understanding insulin’s role in the body. Insulin allows glucose to travel from the bloodstream into the cells, where it is used for cell functioning. When we eat foods high in refined carbohydrates, insulin levels surge to remove the sugar from the blood and get it into your cells. This mechanism works very well for the most part. But if insulin spikes too often from a diet rich in the high-carb foods that trigger insulin secretion, your cells respond by decreasing the reactivity and number of insulin receptors on their surfaces. Eventually, this prevents glucose from getting into your cells, leading to high blood sugar and depriving your cells of the energy they need to function. This is why many women with insulin resistance experience carbohydrate cravings, fatigue and weight-gain — their cells are literally starving for energy, even when plenty of glucose is available in the blood. Down the road, your body’s capacity to generate insulin appropriately becomes depleted, and the result is type 2 diabetes.
But that’s just the basics — there is so much more than that going on here. The bigger problem is that insulin resistance lies at one end of a spectrum of related disorders called metabolic syndrome, a serious health challenge that takes on many different forms in the 21st century, leading not just to diabetes but a whole host of equally or even more problematic health conditions. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the signals your body sends you when it is dealing with insulin resistance.
Our patients often ask why insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes are on the rise. In many cases, the answer lies in the food we eat — and our lack of movement. Our early ancestors focused on hunting and gathering food. This simple act involved two key elements: they were obtaining whole foods straight from their environment and getting a lot of exercise in the process. In modern society, we sit parked at our desks and in our cars for so much of the day, and food is available at almost every turn — much of which depletes the body rather than nourishing it. Meanwhile, the research is mounting that shows how foods high in refined carbohydrates, preservatives, pesticides, trans fats, toxins and super sugars like high-fructose corn syrup all contribute to insulin resistance.
I’ve seen how, when women understand these factors, they have an enormous capacity to improve their quality of life by addressing their insulin resistance. How can they do this? By “turning back the clock” a little! Like our ancestors, we have to “hunt” for good food in a world saturated with unhealthy obstacles. We tell our patients to seek out whole foods, fresh from the source, foods rich in protein, complex carbohydrates and nutrients — in short, foods that take time to digest and allow for a more gradual, gentler rise in insulin levels. We also know that incorporating exercise into your daily life is another way to reverse or prevent insulin resistance because it increases the insulin receptors on your cells. And there are many other natural options available for improving insulin regulation and sustaining a healthy metabolism.