Insulin is a hormone that is produced by the pancreas that helps cells to absorb glucose in the blood. When we eat a lot of sugar or carbs, there is a rush of glucose (sugar) absorbed into the bloodstream and the pancreas responds by releasing insulin, signaling the cells to allow the sugar in. When blood sugars dip low from chronic hunger or lack of food, there is very little insulin produced.
A lifetime of sugar rushes and sugar deficits can lead to Type II Diabetes, a blood sugar disorder that is characterized by insulin resistance. Insulin resistance happens when your cells stop being able to efficiently respond to the presence of insulin. Imagine you live next to a train track, or by a fire station. Eventually the constant trains or sirens become white noise – we stop hearing them out of habituation. Insulin resistance is kind of like this – long term sugar rushes followed by insulin rushes make the cells that are supposed to be responding to insulin and absorbing the glucose become numb or indifferent to the presence of insulin in the blood. They stop responding and sugar + insulin become “white noise” in the bloodstream, which can cause a whole host of health issues.
The good news is it is possible to improve insulin sensitivity at a cellular level, especially at the pre-diabetes stage. The first step is to adjust your eating habits and diet. The sugar rushes need to stop happening as it is the flooding of the system on a chronic basis that causes the habitual “resistance.” This means reducing sugar and simple carb intake and replacing them with protein and low glycemic vegetables.
Our cells like a slow, steady amount of glucose and insulin in the blood. This is translated as regular meals and snacks that are high in protein, healthy fats, and phytonutrients. This makes sense – it is always easier to handle any situation in life when things come at us in a moderate, orderly fashion. The microcosm is the macrocosm!
There are several botanicals and nutrients that have proven helpful for raising insulin sensitivity as well. Alpha Lipoic Acid is commonly used for blood sugar issues. This fat and water-soluble antioxidant improves the plasma membranes of cells, where the insulin receptors are located. The actual mechanism is not known, but the effects of lowered blood sugar in diabetes have been clinically evidenced in multiple studies.
The ginseng family including Panax Ginseng and American Ginseng are also used to lower blood sugar while increasing the ability to adapt to stress. This adaptogenic action exhibits effects across multiple endocrine organs including reproductive, adrenal and pancreas, making it a great herb for modern medicine. The ginsengs also seem to work at the plasma membrane level as well as improving steroid hormone receptor sites, which may explain their benefit and use in improving insulin resistance. There are many other botanicals that have a history of use in blood sugar management including bilberry, cinnamon, gymnemna and more.
Vitamin and mineral deficiency can also worsen existing insulin resistance and exacerbate high blood sugar. The trace minerals chromium and vanadium are both cofactors in the glucose-insulin complex and deficiencies in either of these will worsen blood sugar issues. Chronic magnesium deficiency is also commonly found in people with insulin resistance. This could be due to a deficient dietary intake as magnesium is found in leafy green vegetables and broccoli as well as fish, raw nuts and seeds, avocados, bananas and dark chocolate.
Finally, daily high intensity, short-term exercise is essential for improving your body’s ability to respond to insulin in the blood. This kind of exercise shifts metabolism into fuel-burning mode, instead of fuel saving mode. Being active multiple times a day is even better for shifting into glucose utilization mode and improving cell receptor activity.
Insulin resistance is a complicated condition that has multiple metabolic streams happening at the same time including cardiac, endocrine, digestive, hepatic and more. The individual management of insulin resistance will be different for everyone depending on genetics, lifestyle, degree of pancreatic damage and more; however, these fundamental nutrition, supplement, and lifestyle basics are great starting points for anyone interested in improving blood sugar parameters and taking an empowered stance towards self care and health care.