Health Biomarkers Series: Insulin

Posted on 10/10/2013 by Dr. Adrian den Boer
Categories: blood sugar, Health biomarker, hormones, inflammation

With the emerging global epidemic of diabetes, you may have heard of the important role of insulin and blood sugar management. Indeed, insulin, a HORMONE, interacts with all other hormones, and has implications for overall health when not in check. Additionally, measuring insulin, not just blood sugar, is crucial to understanding the true picture of health. 
The Role of Insulin 

Speaking of understanding, the primary function of insulin is to attach to insulin receptors on cells throughout the body. This allows the cells to sponge up sugar out of the bloodstream, so that sugar is then used as energy for everyday life activities.  Any excess sugar is converted to fat.
At any given moment, approximately five liters of blood is traveling around your blood vessels, and only one teaspoon of sugar is needed to fuel everyday activity.  With the Standard American Diet (SAD), consumption of too many processed carbs and sugary foods is delivering far more sugar than this to the blood.
This forces the body to secrete lots of insulin on a regular basis, and eventually, it loses its sensitivity to insulin. It’s as if your cells start turning a deaf ear towards receiving and utilizing insulin, regardless of sugar consumption. To make itself “heard,” insulin production is then ratcheted up, and has to be secreted at very high levels on a continuous basis to control blood sugar levels.
The Silent Epidemic of Insulin Resistance
At this point, when blood sugar levels are measured, they may still be within the normal range according to Western medicine. Yet, it’s these steps BEFORE diabetes that go undiagnosed, and are a part of the silent epidemic of insulin resistance sweeping the world. In fact, it’s estimated that 75% of Americans are insulin resistant and don’t know it (Diabetic Care Services, 2013).  The biggest mistake that doctors are making at this point is by just measuring blood sugar and not INSULIN levels, which gives a more accurate snapshot.
Ideally, insulin should be at or below 8 millimoles per liter (mmol/l), which is a unit of measure that shows the concentration of a substance (insulin, in this case) in a specific amount of fluid.

A greater measurement than this indicates a high level of insulin production. Eventually, insulin production will burn out and cease, leading to full-on diabetes.

The Implications of Insulin Resistance 

What are the implications of insulin resistance? As a hormone, it affects other hormones, causing imbalances within the body. Inflammation also shoots up, attacking the blood vessel walls, causing direct physical damage. Cardiovascular and stroke risks increase as well (Ginsberg, 2000).

Additionally, not only has it been linked to magnesium magnesium deficiency and sodium retention; it causes a reduction in “good” HDL cholesterol and an increase in “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and an increase in cancer risk (Arcidiacono, 2012).

Other byproducts of insulin resistance include weight gain, especially around the abdomen. Most people become apple-shaped, but I have seen patients whose body type was totally normal and insulin resistance was prevalent.
Finally, insulin at high levels can be such an overwhelming force, it may be behind common hormonal issues, like PCOS, endometriosis, infertility, PMS, dysmenorrhea, and even prostate enlargement and erectile dysfunction (Bloomgarden, 2007).

Preventing or Reversing Insulin Resistance 
To prevent or reverse insulin resistance, include the following in your diet and lifestyle: 

1) Make non-starchy vegetables the centerpiece of your diet.
2) Reduce or eliminate sugar in your diet, including fruit juices.
3) Reduce the use of sweeteners like molasses, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, and honey.
4) Avoid food sensitivities.
5) Avoid dairy and fried foods.
6) Exercise! Resistance exercises that build muscle are especially the most effective against reversing insulin resistance; even more than aerobic activity!
Thus, insulin is a huge player in today’s society, and should be measured for a view not only of blood sugar problems, but of overall inflammation. I suspect that a century ago, insulin resistance would have been a disease only of the kings and queens. It’s very obvious that our diet and lifestyle are to blame, so control what you can in your diet and lifestyle to reverse or prevent this epidemic in your life!
Arcidiacono, B., Iiritano, S., Nocera, A., Possidente, K., Nevolo, M., Ventura, V., Foti, D., Chiefari, E., Brunetti, A. (2012). Insulin resistance and cancer risk: An overview of the pathogenetic mechanisms. Journal of Diabetes Research. Volume 2012 (2012), Article ID 789174, 12 pages
Bloomgarden, Z. (2007). Gut hormones, obesity, polycystic ovarian syndrome, malignancy, and lipodystrophy syndromes. American Diabetes Association. Vol. 30 no. 7 1934-1939.
Ginsberg, H. (2000). Insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease. The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 106(4):453–458.
What you need to know about insulin resistance & pre-diabetes (2013). Diabetic Care Services.
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