Can you have your cake and eat it too?
Priyanka Gupta, ND
Balancing blood sugar is tricky business. Learn how insulin functions to stay in a healthy balance.
In 1921, Canadian scientist Frederick Banting discovered insulin and consequently shaped our understanding of how the body processes the foods we eat. Banting was the first to conclude that insulin secreted from the pancreas helps the body take sugar out of the bloodstream and deliver it into the cells where it is then used as a crucial fuel source.
What is insulin sensitivity?
The balance of blood sugar can be like a tightrope walk for many people. If not enough insulin is produced, a high amount of circulating sugar can be left in the bloodstream, leaving the tissues without the ability to function. Too little sugar can also spell danger for a person. An understanding of how insulin functions can ensure the body remains in a healthy balance at all times.
Just as coffee drinkers can become resistant to the effects of caffeine, consuming too many carbohydrates too often can lead to insulin working less effectively. In essence, the body becomes less sensitive to the effects of insulin. In turn, high amounts of sugar can be found in the bloodstream and not enough in the cells where it is needed.
Insulin sensitivity refers to how well or poorly the body responds to the hormone insulin. A person who is insulin sensitive will require smaller amounts of insulin to get sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells. Someone who is deemed insulin resistant will require larger amounts of the hormone to keep the blood sugar stable. In other words, insulin resistance is a signal that the body is having difficulty metabolizing sugar.
Who is insulin sensitive?
Although doctors and nurses use insulin sensitivity to monitor how much insulin to administer to diabetic patients, people without diabetes should also have an understanding about their insulin sensitivity. Insulin resistance alone does not cause type 2 diabetes, but it can set the stage for the disease by placing a high demand on insulin-producing cells.
In prediabetes, blood sugar can remain high because not enough insulin is produced. Once a person has prediabetes, eventually type 2 diabetes can set in. People with diabetes can have very high blood sugar, which, if left untreated, can lead to complications such as heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure. However, with the use of medications, diet modifications, and exercise, people with prediabetes and type 1 diabetes can lead healthy and active lives.
How to improve insulin sensitivity
A number of factors can affect insulin sensitivity. One such factor is a person’s weight. Some experts believe that obesity, especially excess fat around the waist, is the primary cause of insulin resistance. Although previously considered an energy source, the fat around a person’s belly can cause long-lasting low-grade inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can further lower the body’s ability to metabolize fat and signals the start of insulin resistance.
As the situation spirals out of control, belly fat can further lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. However, the most obvious effect of belly fat and insulin resistance is the development of type 2 diabetes.
The good news is that a number of studies have shown that losing weight can reduce insulin resistance and even prevent or delay type 2 diabetes. A recent study by researchers at the University of Utah followed 166 diabetes patients. The study found that weight loss was associated with “good glycemic control.” In other words, a decrease in weight can improve a person’s ability to metabolize sugar and lower insulin resistance.
Insulin sensitivity is greatly affected by physical activity. More glucose is used by muscle tissue than any other organ system in the body. By burning stored glucose for energy, muscle cells refill their reserves with glucose taken from the bloodstream, keeping blood glucose levels in balance.
A little exercise can go a long way. This is the conclusion of a group of scientists in Japan who looked at leisure-time physical activity. Since many individuals are not able to engage in high intensity exercise, researchers found that even mild to moderate exercise, such as walking and biking, was associated with better glycemic control and improvement in cardiovascular risk factors.
A good night’s sleep is often underestimated. However, a group of researchers in the Netherlands found that sleep deprivation in even a single night can induce insulin resistance in healthy individuals. The researchers theorize that lack of sleep can increase the hormone ghrelin, which can make a person crave sweet and starchy foods.
With a good understanding of how insulin functions, we can appreciate that, although the body needs sugar as a fuel source, too much can lead down a spiralling path toward prediabetes. With proper exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate sleep, insulin can help us have our cake and eat it too.
Natural supplements that help improve insulin sensitivity
Shown to counter the negative effects of high sugar diets, cinnamon extract can help improve insulin sensitivity. A 2009 study shows that participants who consumed 3 g of cinnamon daily over a two-week period significantly improved insulin sensitivity.
A recent review of 17 randomized controlled trials confirmed that green tea helps to improve blood sugar levels and reduce fasting insulin levels. Drinking one to two cups per day can confer a positive impact on insulin sensitivity.
Blueberries are rich in antioxidants and fibre. Research has shown that eating a berry-rich meal in the form of a shake twice daily can have a marked improvement in insulin sensitivity in just six weeks.
Legumes, such as chickpeas, yellow peas, and navy beans, are beneficial in helping to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and even waist circumference. As an added benefit, legumes help stabilize blood sugar and increase insulin sensitivity.