Insulin resistance 101: understanding it to better manage your prediabetes

Insulin resistance 101: understanding it to better manage your prediabetes

Do you know what the following conditions have in common?

  • Prediabetes
  • Diabetes
  • Weight gains
  • Afternoon energy crashes
  • Sugar craving

If you said “eating too much sugar”, you got part of the answer correct.

(Hey, this article has to teach you something new, right?)

The other thing that they have in common is that they’re mainly caused by insulin resistance.

As someone with prediabetes, it’s crucial to your health to understand what insulin resistance is.

Why? Because decreasing your insulin resistance will allow you to better manage your prediabetes and prevent diabetes.

To do this, we’ll first need to discuss the topics below:

  • What is insulin and how does it work?
  • How different foods influence insulin levels
  • What is insulin resistance (IR)?
  • The risk factors for IR
  • The symptoms of insulin IR
  • What you should do to decrease your IR

 

Insulin: how it works

Insulin is a hormone secreted by your pancreas that works alongside another hormone called glucagon. Both hormones are responsible for maintaining your blood sugar within a specific range to allow your body to function optimally.

Blood sugar is a measurement of the amount of sugar (specifically a molecule called glucose) in your blood.  It varies though out the day depending on what you eat and how active you are.

When you eat and your blood sugar goes up, insulin helps bring it back down. On the contrary, when you’ve been fasting between meals and your blood sugar starts to go down, glucagon is released to bring it back up.

While both hormones keep your blood sugar within a specific target, insulin and glucagon have opposite effects. When one is high, the other is low. Keep this is mind as I continue my explanation.

Now, let’s focus on insulin a bit more.

When your blood glucose goes up in response to a meal, insulin ushers the glucose from your blood into your cells. The latter will then use this glucose as fuel to perform their usual functions.

However, if the cells already have enough glucose inside of them, insulin will instead store the excess glucose as fat. This fat will be used as energy at a later time when the body needs it. This usually occurs in between meals when you’re not eating, and when the hormone glucagon is stimulated by a lowered blood sugar level.

As you may have noticed, insulin is both a blood sugar regulator and a fat storage hormone. On the other hand, glucagon is your fat burning hormone.

 

How different food influences your insulin level

Insulin is triggered by the presence of an elevated blood sugar level. Therefore, foods that increase your blood levels the most will trigger a bigger release of insulin.

Foods that fall under this category belong to the macronutrient class of carbohydrates, which is your main source for glucose. Carbohydrates (also commonly called carbs) are often categorized into the class of simple and complex carbs based on how quickly the body digests them and breaks it down to access glucose (more on this later).

On the other hands, the macronutrient classes of protein and fat are digested by the body much slower. They also do not raise your blood sugar levels as much as carbohydrates. Therefore, they trigger the release of insulin at a much lower degree than carbs.

As a general rule, carbs trigger insulin production the most. Then comes proteins, and finally fats.

With me so far? Alright, let’s move on to the good stuff!

 

What is insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance develops when your body is constantly exposed to a high level of insulin in your body. The latter can occur when you eat a diet high in carbs for an extended period of time (usually years). We saw that this greatly stimulates the release of insulin.

While insulin is a crucial hormone, too much of it can be dangerous for the body. For example, too much insulin would cause your blood sugars to fall too low, which can cause death. Yikes! Therefore, as a defense mechanism, your body becomes resistant to the higher levels of insulin and its effect.

When you think about it, the human body is extremely smart. It possesses thousands of mechanisms to maintain a certain level of equilibrium.

For example, when you’re too hot, you sweat to bring down your body temperature. When you’re cold, you shiver, and your body hair raises up to bring warm you up. These are examples of the body’s adaptation to short-term changes.

However, when the body is exposed to a “stressor” over a longer period of time, the body will adapt itself to create a new state of equilibrium for this “stressor” to become less of a problem. In other words, your body created a new “normal”.

Notice how people living near a train track or airport barely notice the sounds of trains or airplanes anymore? To them, it’s just “white noise”. Their bodies have adapted to this very loud noise, and has become part of their new “normal”.

In the case of insulin resistance, your cells simply start responding less well to the effects of insulin. Consequently, your blood sugar rises, because the glucose cannot enter your cells.

To overcome this resistance in your cells, your pancreas pumps out more insulin, which only provides a temporary solution. As your insulin levels in your body continue to rise, your body will eventually develop a new state of equilibrium. Meaning your cells will develop a new resistance to this higher dose of insulin. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Eventually, after working overtime for several years, the pancreas calls it quits and starts producing less insulin. As you can guess, this is bad news and your blood sugar levels will rise even more than previously.

 

The risk factors for insulin resistance

The risk factors for insulin resistance are the exact same ones for prediabetes. Why? Because IR contributes largely to prediabetes. Here’s what I wrote in my Prediabetes 101 article:

Risk factors for prediabetes that you cannot change

  • Age over 40
  • Female sex
  • Being African-American, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian American or Pacific Islands
  • Parents or Siblings with diabetes
  • Gestational Diabetes

Risk factors for prediabetes that you can act on (a.k.a modifiable risk factors)

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Overweight with a BMI over 25
  • Waistline over 40 inches for men, and 35 inches for women
  • Being sedentary.
  • Interrupted sleep patterns, or work night shifts

 

 

Symptoms

Prediabetes and insulin resistance don’t have any specific nor well defined symptoms. This is one of the reasons why the condition can go unnoticed for years, and it usually found by your doctor “by mistake” on a routine blood test.

Some prediabetics experience the same symptoms as people with diabetes, such as feeling fatigue, having blurred vision, feeling very thirsty, and urinating often. This comes to no surprise, as the underlying cause for prediabetes and diabetes is the same (insulin resistance).

On occasion, some people with prediabetes experience reactive hypoglycemia two to three hours after a meal. Hypoglycemia is also called low blood glucose or low blood sugar. It occurs when the level of glucose in your blood drops below normal.

Hypoglycemia in prediabetic people is a sign that there’s a problem with the insulin and glucose metabolism in their body.

If you have these symptoms and haven’t discussed this yet with your doctor, book an appointment with him/her soon to see if they are caused by prediabetes.

The earlier you catch it, the easier it is to manage… and prevent diabetes.

 

Why you can’t quit carbs

By now, you probably understand why a diet high in carbs contributes to your IR. And it seems logical that adopting a reduced carb diet would help improve it.

However, carbs are darn hard to quit!

Why is that? Why is it that when we have cravings, we crave sugar and cake (instead something healthy like a cucumber?)

Here’s a secret: the reason you’re reaching for that cookie isn’t because of your lack of willpower. Nope, it’s not your fault.

It’s because your hormones are out of whack.

To explain this further, let’s circle back to the notion of simple and complex carbs.

 

Simple versus complex carbs

The simpler the carb (think processed sweets), the faster your body can digest it, and the faster glucose is sent into your bloodstream and then delivered to the cells for energy.

What happens when all that energy is sent into the bloodstream at once is that a lot of insulin is sent out to take that sugar (energy) to the working muscles to provide them with the fuel to keep going.

The problem with this happens when the muscles aren’t working very hard (i.e., you’re sitting on the couch, at your desk, at the dinner table, etc.)…

When that happens, the muscles say ‘no thanks’ to the offer of more energy (they don’t need it PLUS their back up stores are already full as it is) and insulin then moves on to store that energy (glucose) as fat, because we saw that insulin also happens to be your main fat storage hormone.

The second part of that problem is the speed that the carbs were digested. Because simple carbs got digested so quickly, all of the energy was sent into your bloodstream at once.

Insulin then came and removed it (again-all at once), and now your blood sugar is too low. What happens next?

 

Cravings

You crave more carbs to quickly raise blood sugar back up. This is why you don’t crave a cucumber. It just simply doesn’t raise your blood sugar quickly enough. So, you want something that is basically made of pure sugar.

This puts you into the never-ending cycle of craving carbs and gaining weight. This cycle is the big picture issue with a diet heavy in carbohydrates (aka the way 99% of us eat).

Unless you are extremely active, odds are you unable to use up all of that fuel that’s released at once when you eat a lot of carbohydrates.

 

How insulin resistance is sabotaging your weight loss efforts

If you are trying to lose weight, the picture gets even bleaker (don’t worry, I tell you soon how you can make things better!). Because you’re relying so heavily on carbohydrates and not moving enough to use all of the sudden bursts of energy, your body has a lot of insulin pumping through on a regular basis.

High amounts of insulin in the body can lead to some severe complications down the road (think insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes).

High insulin levels also contribute to your staying in fat storage mode (insulin is your fat storage hormone), instead of fat burning mode (a way of operating that’s controlled by glucagon, your fat burning hormone).

Remember how I said that insulin and glucagon are counterparts? When one is high the other, naturally, is low. If your insulin levels are constantly high, your glucagon levels will always be too low to break down your fat storage.

This is one of the reasons why people looking to lose weight are often offered a low-carb diet.

In the case of prediabetics and diabetics, a low-carb diet helps decrease insulin resistance. The weight loss is just a fun “side effect” of this reduction in carbs.

In addition, more emphasis on protein or fat is warranted as they don’t affect your blood sugar as much (i.e., no highs, lows, cravings and crashes) and keep you fuller for a longer period.

 

How to decrease insulin resistance and manage your prediabetes

I hope that by now, I have been able to convey to you the important role IR plays in causing prediabetes, and that decreasing your IR is the key to better managing your health.

Below are actions you can take to start reversing your IR:

 

  1. Limit carbohydrates by limiting processed foods

Before I go on, let me state that carbs aren’t the devil. Your body needs them to thrive! However, the quantity of carbs the standard North American diet provides far exceed our requirements, and the quality of carbs is often poor (processed foods lack vitamins and other nutrients).

Right now, we don’t need to go into the exact macronutrient percentage or numbers of grams. If you’re starting out, the simplest and best thing you can do is to limit processed foods.

The latter usually contains simple carbs that are digested very quickly by the body and raise the blood sugar significantly. To make things worst, they are often devoid of any nutrients.

Instead, focus on eating whole foods that includes lots of green vegetables, berries, legumes, and whole grains like quinoa. They provide you with the carbs you need, but are full of fiber and vitamins.

 

  1. Avoid added sugar (processed and natural)

The second most important thing you can do for your prediabetes is cutting down on the added sugar. This means both processed sweeteners like white sugar and natural sugar like honey.

By cutting down on processed food as suggested in step 1, you will also be cutting down on added sugar. Double win!

While honey is still better than white sugar in terms of nutrients, it still raises your blood sugar and stresses your pancreas. This is why I recommend using fruits like berries to sweeten your food.

Want to learn how to cut down on sugar? Check out my 5 Days to Ditch Sugar Challenge here!

 

  1. Eat more fiber

Consuming high-fiber foods help regulate insulin resistance. Example of foods rich in fiber are green leaf vegetables, artichokes, peas, Brussels sprouts, avocado, legumes, beans, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and quinoa. Plus, these high-fiber foods are usually rich in minerals and vitamins.

Want to know a no-brainer way to eating more fiber? Fill at least half of your plate with fresh vegetables.

To learn more ways on how to add extra fiber to your diet, read this article.

 

  1. Eat healthy fats

Not only do healthy fats trigger little insulin production (and thus contribute less to IR), but they also keep you full for a longer period.

When you are reducing carbs, it is important to balance your macronutrients with either protein or fat. If not, you’ll be in calorie deficit (because you cut down on cabs), which will leave you feeling hungry all the time and unbalanced.

Most people eat enough protein (20% of their caloric intake), therefore I often suggest people to eat more plant-based fats like olives, avocados, nuts and flax seeds. It keeps them full and it doesn’t dramatically raise your blood sugar and insulin levels.

If you’re scared eating more fats will raise your cholesterol, read this article here.

 

  1. Move your body

The more active you become, the more “sensitive” your cells become to insulin’s action. How come? Because your cells will be using its internal storage of glucose to function. Consequently, your cells will actually require the glucose from the blood that insulin is bringing to them, and let it in.

This allows your blood sugar levels to go down and the pancreas to not have to pump so much insulin to “force” the glucose into your overstuffed cells.

Therefore, being more physically active helps bring down your blood sugar and your insulin levels.

 

  1. Mindful eating

Mindful eating is one of those things that’s regarded as “woo-woo” by most people. However, in its essence, mindful eating is simply paying attention to what and when you’re eating.

Mindful eating allows us to avoid mindless snacking, overcoming cravings, eating when we’re not actually hungry, and stopping before the point of a food coma.

While it doesn’t have a direct effect on your blood sugar levels, it is a useful skill to develop. With mindful eating, you’ll have a much easier time limiting carbs and reducing intake of added sugar.

 

  1. Getting enough sleep

Like mindful eating, it doesn’t directly aid in reducing IR. However, lack of sleep has been shown to reduce our judgments around cravings. Notice how when you’re tired, you want sweets to perk you up more often? When you alert and well rested, it is easier to witness your craving and let it pass.

 

How to implement the steps above to better manage your prediabetes

Truth be told, what I wrote above probably isn’t new to you. You most likely heard this somewhere else.

With the internet, we’re not lacking information.

However, I believe we are lacking instruction on how implement what we are learning.

It’s one thing to know something, and another thing to do it!

And I don’t judge when I say this. I’m guilty of this in several areas of my life (I always “forget” to floss my teeth…).

I believe one of the reasons we don’t always do what we know we should be doing, is that many of us don’t know where to start.

Changing habits isn’t always easy, and often can be overwhelming.

There’re at least 10 decisions we need to make (Should I sign up to the gym? Or maybe eat more veggies first? Put an alarm to be in bed by 10pm? Aaaaaaahhhh!) and choosing the first step can kind of put us in decision paralysis.

But here’s the thing, choosing to become healthier (and in your case managing your prediabetes) doesn’t have to be overwhelming.

Instead, if we simply focus on changing one habit at the time, we can still create a positive impact on our health, without going into a panic or frenzy.

It’s all about taking consistent baby steps.

 

Recap

  • Insulin helps regulate your blood sugar level.
  • Insulin is your fat storage hormone when your cells can’t use the extra glucose in your blood.
  • An elevated blood sugar level triggers insulin production.
  • Carbs elevate blood sugar and insulin levels the most.
  • Protein and fats elevate blood sugar and insulin levels less than carbs.
  • Insulin resistance (IR) is caused by the constant presence of high levels of insulin in your blood.
  • IR is an important contributing cause to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
  • Reducing IR will help you better manage your prediabetes and decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes.

 

I hope this article has been helpful to you! Let me know in the comments below if you learned something new. And if you know a friend who will benefit from reading it, please share it with them!

Warmly,
Jules

about julie

By Julie Doan

A pharmacist and health coach dedicated to helping women regain their health naturally, so that they can live a thriving and pill-free life.

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