What is Insulin Resistance and Do You Have It?
Maybe this story sounds familiar to you. Growing up, I wasn’t necessarily overweight but more on the borderline, gaining and losing the same 10-20 pounds over and over. I grew up on a diet of McDonald’s, fruit juice and sugary snacks. I had constant mood swings and tons of fatigue, right up into adulthood. I would experience extreme mood swings, anxiety and irritability between meals- even if I had just eaten an hour or two prior!
When I did reach that snack or meal time, I would end up feeling super foggy, bloated and exhausted after a meal. Often I was overeating because I was ALWAYS hungry- not peckish or just plain bored- HUNGRY. Like, if I didn’t get something in my belly right this second, I would be shaky, jittery and flipping out on someone.
Of course, I later learned that these symptoms were part of insulin resistance- a big time factor in the Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) that I experienced. Not only did it play into how I felt like what I’ve described above, but it also caused irregular, painful menstrual cycles in addition to excess hair growth (moustache, anyone?), head hair loss and cystic acne (I thought puberty ended in my teens!).
Insulin resistance may not be familiar to you, but I’m willing to bet it’s a large part of the symptoms and hormonal imbalances you’re experiencing, and here’s why.
What Is Insulin Resistance
To understand insulin resistance and it’s impact on our hormonal and general health, we first need to understand insulin and blood sugar control in our bodies- this isn’t just for people with diabetes!
Firstly, insulin is the major hormone in balancing our blood sugar. When we eat a food that has carbs, our body breaks it down into simple sugars or glucose through digestion. All of our cells need glucose for energy, and food is where we get the majority of the glucose. Once glucose has been released into the blood, the pancreas will produce insulin. Insulin then comes to the rescue and helps the glucose get into the body cells by “unlocking” the cell door. Once the majority of glucose has been brought into the cells, blood glucose levels will decline, and this is a good thing.
Now, here’s what goes on in insulin resistance. For various reasons (like a diet high in carbs, long-term stress, and others) many women experience high blood glucose levels. So, the pancreas will create more and more insulin to get all that excess glucose into the cells. The problem starts when the “key” that insulin has to the cells stops working- like your body hired a locksmith behind insulin’s back.
This causes levels of blood glucose to stay high, and insulin stays high as well.
Additionally, your pancreas may become tired after producing SO MUCH insulin for so long, and may drastically reduce or stop producing insulin altogether. Any one of these issues is bad news for your health and hormones.
So why would this be happening to you? Well, there is no ‘one’ cause, or right answer. Research is still trying to figure it out.
Here are a few idea of what comes into play when insulin resistance occurs:
If your food mostly comes from a restaurant, bag, box or carton, you can bet diet is playing a role in symptoms. All of these types of foods are generally very high in carbohydrates- especially the refined types like sugars, flours and their products. This puts a lot of glucose in the blood, causing your body to create more and more insulin, potentially leading to insulin resistance eventually. Clinically, every woman I’ve ever consulted with who ate this way had insulin resistance problems.
Additionally, doctored fats like trans fats found in fried foods and the majority of those bagged and boxed foods impairs glucose sensitivity, adding to the problem.
Lastly, poor diets are often low in nutrients. Not eating enough fresh produce, healthy fats and clean proteins leaves the body devoid of many insulin-sensitizing nutrients like omega3s, vitamin D, B vitamins and Magnesium.
As much as we hate to believe it, exercise has a profound impact on our health and on insulin sensitivity. Regular movement and exercise helps our bodies to use up excess blood glucose (for energy), reducing the amount of insulin required in the body. Second, the right exercise in general helps the body to be sensitized to the effects of our insulin hormone.
Some research has pointed to genetics or heredity playing a part in insulin resistance. If you have a family history of diabetes, obesity, high triglycerides, cancer and heart disease- it is possible these factors may happen to you later in life. Genetics is funny business though, because not everyone with a family history gets whatever the disease is. Our environment has a large impact on what genes turn “active” and which don’t, which is why most things are still in our control.
There’s a host of symptoms involved in insulin resistance, but I’ve only listed a few major ones here.
- Getting “Hangry” (mood swings, irritability in between meals)
- Family or personal history of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, or high triglycerides
- Weight gain, especially in the belly (the dreaded belly fat!!)
- Tiredness after a meal
- General fatigue or exhaustion
- Poor menstrual cycle health
Insulin Resistance and Your Hormones
Who gives a hoot about insulin resistance when dealing with reproductive hormone imbalances? We all should!
Firstly because insulin itself is a hormone- and how well or unwell insulin functions will determine the health of your other hormones- like cortisol and estrogen.
Cortisol is our main stress hormone. When we experience a stressful situation or live in long-term stress, our body releases cortisol to help us. It does this as part of the ‘fight or flight’ response. This response was initially for real, life-threatening events, like a large animal predator coming after us, in the early human days. Currently, the fight or flight response is chronically activated as we experience non-life threatening stresses like fights with spouses and long commutes, which our bodies read as emergencies. During this response, cortisol tells places of glucose storage (like the liver) to release glucose into the blood for energy. This extra glucose causes insulin to be released. The longer this cycle goes on the more vicious it gets, and the more likely insulin resistance will occur.
Reproductive Hormones Like Estrogen and Testosterone
Insulin is one of the “major” hormones, and insulin resistance makes it almost impossible for your body to balance its “minor” hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone to name a few) until your insulin metabolism is balanced first. To put it simply, if you have hot flashes, weight gain or painful periods and you are insulin resistant, it’s going to be nearly impossible to heal them without first healing the insulin resistance.
Insulin resistance impairs the body’s ability to ovulate, so making some women struggle with irregular or absent periods, and infertility. It does this by creating excess LH, a hormone normally involved in ovulation, that when chronically high actually prevents ovulation from occurring. No ovulation = no period.
Insulin resistance also impairs the ovaries’ ability to create reproductive hormones like estrogen and progesterone- both important for health cycles and hormonal balance throughout the lifespan.
This ovarian and insulin imbalance could contribute to the creation of more testosterone, causing symptoms like cystic acne, excess facial hair (hirsutism) and head hair loss (androgenic alopecia). This is the main reason that women with PCOS experience these symptoms, plus irregular or absent periods.
In regards to other conditions like Endometriosis and Fibroids- the insulin resistance could contribute to to estrogen dominance, in part because progesterone ends up so low. This could contribute to the pain women with endo experience, as well as the weight gain that often accompanies it.
The first thing I do with any private client is work on balancing their blood sugar and insulin. Often this in and of itself will effect profound changes in their symptoms and overall hormonal health. I highly recommend any women do the same, for happy hormones and optimal health.