We talk a lot about insulin and insulin resistance on the blog. It is one of these words that a lot of people throw around but I sometimes wonder whether people actually know what it means exactly. And so this week, we will dive into the basics around what is insulin and insulin resistance.
What is Insulin?
Insulin is a hormone, which is produced in your pancreas. It is essential for our bodies. On a very basic level, it turns eaten food into energy within our cells. It also regulates our blood sugar levels. How does it do that? By messaging cells to absorb glucose (our primary energy source) from our blood stream – either into your muscles, fat, or liver. Your pancreas decides how much of the hormone needs to be produced and “send out” into the bloodstream. This is based on the levels of blood glucose in your body. When stored in the liver, your body can also access this glucose again in times of fasting.
You can see how insulin is super important for our bodies. You can also see how insulin is essential in order to ensure that our blood sugar levels are neither too low or too high at any given time. If one or the other continue over time, they may lead to serious health consequences.
Problems with Insulin
There are several things that can cause issues with insulin and, consequentially, our blood glucose levels.
Type 1 Diabetes
In some people, our immune system attacks the part of the pancreas that produces the insulin leading to either too little or no insulin production whatsoever. This is called Type 1 Diabetes. People who are Type 1 diabetic need to inject regular shots of insulin in order to survive
Insulin resistance means that your fat, liver, and muscles do not respond well to soaking up glucose from the insulin produced. Think of a key that kind of sits in a bit of a tricky lock and does not easily turn any longer. As a result of this, your pancreas needs to produce more insulin in order to help support this slightly tricky, not-so-great-working system.
Prediabetes means that your body has a consistently higher blood glucose levels than what is considered a normal range. However, you are not in a Type 2 Diabetes scenario yet. It usually occurs in people who are already somewhat insulin resistance. Without enough insulin your blood glucose continues to stay elevated in your bloodstream.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 Diabetes is a combination of your pancreas not being able to produce enough insulin in order to regulate your blood sugar levels. At the same time, your cells are not responding to the absorption process. Type 2 Diabetes can mean a slower process that accumulates over time. In many cases moving through first insulin resistance and prediabetes first.
What Happens If We Have Constantly Elevated Blood Sugar Levels?
Too much blood sugar in your bloodstream will, unfortunately, trigger at the same time an increased inflammatory response. I am conscious that I say this a lot (because it is true!!) but inflammation is one of the key drivers of Western diseases. That means constantly elevated levels of blood sugar also mean higher risks of obesity, heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease (which is, as we now know, an inflammation of the brain). There is also more and more research linking inflammation to our mental health – think anxiety and depression.
Just to add a cherry on top of this conversation (I know, I know), it also means that we are speeding up our aging process. You have to think about our body like a toaster. Every time we raise our blood sugar levels massively, we basically brown that toast. The more and quicker we brown the toast, the more we age in a shorter amount of time. So, in summary, elevated blood glucose levels and a constant stream of insulin are not so great for our bodies.
I want to point out that science now knows that more than 90% of people without diabetes experience blood sugar spikes. A blood sugar spike is usually defined as more than 30mg/dL after eating (1.7 mmol/L). For a very long time, it was assumed that only people with diabetes will experience such strong spikes. The idea is to keep the curve as flat as possible. P.S.: I will not go into too much details re. those numbers. I strongly encourage you to speak to your healthcare professional in order to figure these numbers out.
How Do I Know If I Have Problems With Insulin?
The easiest and quickest way to determine blood sugar levels in your body is through blood testing at a doctor’s office. Doctors most often use a test called fasting plasma glucose (FPG) or an A1C test to diagnose prediabetes. FPG shows your blood glucose levels at the time of the test. A1C measures your levels over a 3 month period of time. There is also an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT), which means that subjects drink a sugar concoction and get their blood sugar levels measured before drinking, an hour after drinking, and two hours after drinking.
Fasting blood sugar levels should be at least 100 mg/dL (5.5 mmol/L). Optimal levels are below 85 mg/dL (4.7mmol/L). Fasting insulin levels (a great indicator at predicting glucose challenges early on) should ideally be below 6. Insulin resistance can also be measured through something called the “Homa-Index”. Again, this is a determined through a blood draw. Below 2 means there is little likelihood of insulin resistance, between 2 – 2.5 there is a likelihood, and between 2.5 and 5 there is a strong likelihood. Above 5 usually indicates that people already experience Type 2 Diabetes.
The Takeaway From This Post
Insulin and insulin resistance are topics that will likely receive even more attention in science and research in the coming years because they are on the of the key contributors to our longevity and overall health. If you want to know how to jump off this rollercoaster of blood sugar be sure to check out the following posts:
- Why Blood Sugar Balance is Important and
- How to Balance Your Blood Sugar Levels (contains loads of tangible tips!!)
I hope this post helped! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Beautiful cover photo from Mae Mu auf Unsplash.