Insulin resistance affects tens of millions in the United States. While insulin resistance can run in families, it is most influenced by lack of activity and the consumption of too much unrefined sugar. Both lead to an overweight condition, which then makes the problem of insulin resistance worse.
In order to understand insulin resistance, it is first important to understand how the body’s normal insulin-glucose cycle works, then what can go wrong with this cycle.
What is Insulin Resistance?
Insulin resistance is just what it sounds like – the pancreas produces more insulin than the body’s cells need. What’s more interesting is how insulin resistance develops in the first place.
How Should the Insulin Cycle Work Normally?
Your body has a finely-tuned mechanism for determining how much sugar is needed in the cells in order to function properly. The cycle goes like this:
The body has some glucose in each of its cells. Cells use up glucose due to activity. Brain cells use glucose if you’re thinking a lot (like doing a math problem or writing a speech). In fact, brain cells use around 20% of all the glucose your entire body needs – it’s an area that needs constant glucose in order to function!
The pancreas detects that the cells need more fuel – glucose – to carry on their functions. This organ produces insulin and sends it into the bloodstream. In a properly-functioning system, the cells absorb the insulin, which then triggers them to absorb more glucose.
The cells, triggered by the insulin, take in more glucose to keep their functions going.
As the level of circulating glucose declines, the insulin spurs your liver to produce more glucose. If it has lots of sugars nearby, it will use those (like when you’ve just eaten a candy bar). If there is less sugar, it will go to complex carbohydrates. If there’s none of that around, the liver will convert fat to glucose.
The glucose then circulates in your bloodstream and finds its way to the cells, whose appetite has been whetted by the insulin that they’ve absorbed.
And If I’m Insulin-Resistant, How does It Go Wrong?
The body’s finely-tuned insulin-glucose cycle worked well when we were all pursuing active lifestyles. The caveman hunters who had to run after prey every day got lots of exercise. And they ate foods that were unprocessed: game meats, complex carbohydrates (whole grains such as rice or wheat) and lots of fiber from tubers and other vegetables. The body never had an excess of sugars, as they just weren’t available in the diet.
This virtuous cycle persisted until a hundred years ago. People still worked hard in the factories and the fields, and food was generally wholesome.
In modern times, sedentary lifestyles and the high consumption of refined starches (like white bread) and sugars (like soft drinks or juice) have led to a disruption of this insulin-glucose cycle. The body consumes too much sugar and the cells use too little glucose. The result: circulating glucose levels and circulating insulin levels remain high as the pancreas tries to offset the overabundance of sugars in our system. Over time the cells become resistant to insulin, which means that ever increasing amounts are required for the same response.
The result is insulin resistance. It’s a plague, but one that can be combated by reducing our intake of refined sugars, losing a few pounds, and getting off the couch and putting our muscles to work!