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Insulin Resistance & Hormonal Imbalances

A person with a melon on his feet

Because of the major role that Insulin plays in your hormones, it is difficult for the body to balance other hormones such as Estrogen, Progesterone and Testosterone until insulin metabolism is balanced as well.

  • Being insulin resistant puts a woman at a greater risk for other conditions including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, breast cancer, and PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome).

The first step is a state in which the muscle and fat cells no longer accept glucose. The body’s demand for fuel varies but the brain requires our blood sugar to remain stable. Getting the cells in the body the energy they need without changing our blood sugar level is a critical function played by insulin as it signals the cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream. The body monitors what we have ingested, blood sugar level and cell demands, then releases insulin in the correct amounts. This process represents a healthy body that is “insulin sensitive.”

Many women’s diets are low in healthy fats and consist of an excessive amount of refined, processed carbohydrates from sugar and other processed foods, most notably those containing HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). Some of these foods are marketed as “healthy,” such as:

  •  some breakfast cereals, low fat yogurt, diet soda, white bread, bagels, pasta, etc. 

Consuming these foods causes a rapid rise in blood sugar.  The body manages this high blood sugar with a compensatory rapid rise in insulin. The overproduction of insulin causes a rapid and drastic reduction in blood sugar for a short period of time. (The brain can only last a few minutes without a steady supply of its fuel, glucose.)

This drop in blood sugar levels triggers a compensatory rise in cortisol level (responsible for moving sugar out of storage and into the bloodstream) which generates more of the same cycle including cravings for more carbs and sugar. Extra insulin travels with the new rise in blood sugar to transport the glucose into the cells for storage or energy production. 

Over time, however, the cells lose their ability to take in large amounts of glucose and this state is called insulin resistance. The cells in the body literally alter the shape of their insulin receptors so the insulin no longer fits the receptor and insulin can no longer transport glucose across the cell membrane. Both the insulin and the glucose are left to circulate in the bloodstream.

However, the body is not designed for prolonged high levels of Insulin.

High levels of insulin disrupts cellular metabolism and spreads inflammation. Insulin disrupts fat metabolism. When the cells can’t absorb the extra glucose any more, the liver converts it into fat. Fat cells are loaded with glucose receptors so this is a vicious cycle. Ironically, while the insulin-resistant woman is gaining weight, her cells are actually “starved” for glucose so she feels exhausted and tends to eat carbohydrate heavy foods in search of energy. 

  • The fat cells are now considered a metabolically active endocrine organ. The extra fat cells are little factories producing estrogen. This contributes to estrogen dominance which causes multiple symptoms in the perimenopausal transition for women. 

This cycle of glycemic stress places a great burden on the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). Elevated cortisol interferes with the function of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, and leads to increased progesterone conversion to cortisol and hence decreased progesterone, resulting in a state of relative estrogen dominance.

Anyone can become insulin resistant- even if they are thin. 

The more processed and refined foods we eat, the more insulin we require to metabolize it. The more insulin in our blood, the less responsive our cells become.  As we age, this continual exposure wears out our tolerance for refined carbohydrates and reduces our sensitivity to insulin.

  • Women with the greatest risk for developing insulin resistance and progressing into Metabolic Syndrome are those who suffer from gestational diabetes, have hypertension, are seriously overweight, or have a family history of Type 2 Diabetes.

The good news is that glucose metabolism is very responsive to lifestyle changes and can be supported through dietary modification. Weight loss can improve insulin resistance as well. 

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