Take a look at the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) top 10 causes of death chart below. You’ll see many of the chronic diseases that are so frequently written about in books and on the Internet: Heart disease and Strokes, Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, and lastly Kidney disease the least discussed, but no less important.
When I look at this list I see trends. Smoking causes all of these diseases, of course, we all get that. In fact, smoking is the primary cause of the 4th leading cause of death - chronic lower respiratory diseases (COPD & Emphysema). Stress, how much we move, sleep, and genetics too, no doubt. But, the cause I want to discuss here is an extremely widespread illness called insulin resistance.
This is a big deal. Insulin resistance leads to high blood pressure and blood sugar disorders including diabetes. These in turn set you up for atherosclerosis (plaque in your arteries), kidney disease, strokes, heart disease, certain dementias, and even Cancer.
Insulin resistance is so prevalent that it’s epidemic. Around 75% of the American public has it (I know!). This means it’s more likely than not that you have it! This is a big deal. Insulin resistance leads to high blood pressure and blood sugar disorders including diabetes. These, in turn, set you up for atherosclerosis (plaque in your arteries), kidney disease, strokes, heart disease, certain dementias, and even Cancer.
In case you aren’t someone that chalks things up (and I’m sure you aren’t), I just named six of the seven chronic illnesses on the CDCs top 10 leading causes of death.
To understand insulin resistance and why it’s so deadly, let’s invest a minute on insulin.
Insulin is A Key Hormone That Drives Both Health AND Disease
Insulin is a hormone with many complex duties in the body. Your health relies on its proper balance: too much will kill you in the long-run (e.g. Type 2 Diabetes) and too little will kill you in the short-run (e.g. Type 1 Diabetes). It’s made by the pancreas and released into the bloodstream when you eat. In a healthy person, the amount of insulin released depends upon the amount of carbohydrates (carbs) you eat. The more carbs in your meal the more insulin is needed and the fewer carbs the less insulin is needed. Pretty straight forward.
Here are a few of the important roles of insulin in your body:
It lowers your blood sugar by shuttling sugar (glucose) out of your bloodstream and into the body’s cells, in particular muscle, liver, and fat cells.
It delivers sugar to your cells providing the starting materials for energy and fat production.
It manages your body fat stores. Its presence in your bloodstream tells your body NOT to burn fat, but to store excess glucose as fat. Its absence in your bloodstream allows the body to burn fat for energy as needed.
An aside: If you're trying to lose weight, read this last point again! It's a big reason you gain weight and/or have trouble losing it.
Insulin Can Be Overwhelming
Like so many things we encounter, good, bad, or indifferent, we can become used to them or even resistant – think hormones, sugar, salt, broccoli, alcohol, light, exercise, social media, and bad TV. It’s human nature to accommodate excess and extremes and it’s also a theme of our biology.
When you make too much insulin for too long in response to habitually high dietary carbs the cells of your body will become overwhelmed. Eventually, they’ll cope with the flood of insulin by ignoring it – aka, they become resistant to it. The more your cells ignore it the more insulin the pancreas will make. It’s a vicious cycle that leave you tired and hangry!
The longer this goes on the more insulin resistant you will become. Eventually, your doctor will see your blood sugar start to climb as you become pre-diabetic then diabetic and probably pick up high blood pressure along the way too.
Do You Suffer From Insulin Resistance?
You can be fat or thin and have this disease - it does not discriminate.
Becoming insulin resistant takes time. How much time depends on what and when you eat/drink, how stressed you are, if you sleep enough, how healthy your gut is, and is even somewhat determined by your genetics.
This is really important. If you take nothing else from this article you should get that even if your doctor tells you that you have normal blood sugar you may still have insulin resistance.
Because it takes time, it's important to understand that damage from excess insulin occurs long before your blood sugar ever starts to rise or symptoms bubble to the surface. Disease can develop over years and even decades. This is really important. If you take nothing else from this article you should get that even if your doctor tells you that you have normal blood sugar you may still have insulin resistance. And, if you do, your body is developing disease.
Eventually, though, you will experience common symptoms. By the time you notice them years of damage will have been driving you toward those six top causes of death I spoke of earlier.
Here are some typical ways to know if you have insulin resistance.
You crave sweets and when you eat them you just want more.
You’re hungry or even “hangry” too soon after eating.
You find it difficult to skip a meal.
You’re tired in general and may become more tired after eating a meal.
Your memory is declining (but not so much that you can’t remember when it worked better).
You gain weight more easily and take it off less easily.
You get puffy ankles from water retention.
Excessive hair growth on a woman in areas more typical for men: upper lip, chin, chest, belly, or back.
You have hormonal or cystic acne, especially as an adult.
The skin around your neck, groin, and/or armpits develops skin tags, dark discolored patches, or even thickens.
Eventually, your blood tests may show high blood sugar, triglycerides, and low HDL cholesterol.
You are having difficulty becoming pregnant.
What To Do if You Suspect You’re Insulin Resistant
See your doctor for a thorough exam and blood work. Some of those symptoms can mean multiple things and should be thoroughly checked out. If your blood sugar is high your doctor may offer you medication to bring it down and/or discuss helpful changes to your lifestyle.
If your blood sugar is “normal”, yet you still have these symptoms, you can ask for a deeper evaluation that includes insulin. If your provider resists you can look for a licensed Naturopath or Functional medicine practitioner that will run the appropriate tests.
Whether you are given medication or not, you can get a head start with a low carbohydrate diet. These diets have been shown to reduce your insulin production and allow you to regain your sensitivity. And, because insulin manages your fat stores, they may also help you release body fat (lose weight).
Paleo and Ketogenic diets are a good idea. Eat vegetables that grow above ground more often than root vegetables because of their higher starch (sugars) content. Take a look at my blog: You're Sweet Enough - Simple Advice to Reduce Unnecessary Sugar in Your Diet for more tips. Stay tuned to this blog for more tips as there is more you can do. Due to the importance of this topic, I’ll be talking about it in subsequent articles. Until then check out these related articles.