One of the hottest topics in medicine right now is the early detection of Insulin Resistance - and for good reason. Insulin resistance is a pre-cursor to what people know as type 2 diabetes. So what exactly is insulin resistance? Put simply, Insulin resistance (IR) happens when our bodies have difficulty using glucose for energy because glucose molecules in the blood cannot properly enter our cells. But WHY, you ask? Insulin resistance happens overtime by consuming too many food/drinks that are high in carbohydrates. This floods the blood stream with insulin to try to break down the carbohydrates/ sugar but the body can't keep up. This wears out the pancreas, the organ that makes the insulin. A sedentary lifestyle (read couch potato, desk jockey, hard core gamer) also makes you more like to develop IR. Exercise or activity uses carbohydrates as the main source of energy leaving less sugar running around in the blood stream. Ideally, the body prefers a slow steady level of carbohydrates for best performance and to keep it humming. Can insulin resistance improve or even better, be reversed? Absolutely, it can. Both exercise and a healthy, low carb, higher fiber diet can improve and reverse insulin resistance. At the stage of insulin resistance, the changes are reversible.
Here is a little more detailed information to help you understand how our bodies work:
Insulin is a messenger
Insulin is chemical messenger (aka hormone) produced by our pancreas. Similar to other hormones, the release of insulin into the body can be triggered by specific events. Insulin is triggered to be released from the pancreas when glucose (also called sugar) in the blood increases. This trigger occurs after consuming foods that contain sugar (simple or complex carbohydrates). Simple carbohydrates break down quicker into glucose than the body can make insulin which leads to spikes in insulin production. This causes inflammation in all of the cells in your body making them function like an older, less healthy cell. The good new is that complex carbs take longer to break down and cause a less pronounced insulin spike giving the body time to do it's insulin production. Insulin is like a key that guides glucose through “physiological doors” (mainly located in muscles and liver) which were previously inaccessible by glucose alone. Your body uses the energy created by this key in the door and stores what you don't need right away for future use. By the way, this is call fat. So the goal is not to store more than you need.
A Little More About Insulin Resistance
When we repeatedly flood the blood with sugar via too much food or too many simple sugars or carbs (basically anything made with white flour or sugar) the pancreas gets burned out and eventually will fail, causing Type 2 diabetes. This frequent flood of sugar blocks the “physiological cell doors” of our body. These can leave abnormal amounts glucose stuck in the blood, which causes more insulin to be secreted by the pancreas. Why is more insulin secreted by the pancreas? Remember that the trigger for insulin secretion is high blood sugar. High levels of sugar means high levels of insulin are needed but not always availlable. This imbalanced relationship leads to chronically elevated sugar and insulin levels. Since our body cannot store the glucose in this form, our body ends up storing it as fat (commonly in areas that do not need it, AKA around your belly).
What causes and/or contributes to insulin resistance?
Typically, the more fat you have, the more likely you are to have insulin resistance, especially if you carry that fat around your middle. Again, consuming high amounts of foods that contain sugar or white flour (which breaks down quickly into sugar-who knew!) In other words, over time our tissues don't respond to insulin because insulin has become so familiar. Think about this, have you ever walked into a house where the trash needed to be taken out? The smell is awful, but the longer you are in the room the less the room smells? That is one way to make sense of this physiological process.
Finally, How can I improve/reverse insulin resistance?
Healthy diet and calorie Restriction:
Research has shown:
Eat healthy and reduce calories of you are overweight.
Weight loss also causes (liver) fat loss which also improves insulin sensitivity.
Research Has Shown:
1). Any exercise is better than no exercise. The risk for developing NIDDM in women who engage in exercise at least once a week has been estimated to be 33% lower than for their sedentary counterparts.
2). The better shape you are in, the more insulin sensitive you are, which means glucose is efficiently used for energy. Cross-sectional studies have shown that trained subjects are more insulin sensitive than untrained subjects even to the point that endurance-trained elderly subjects are more insulin sensitive than young, sedentary subjects. Now that is something to write home about!
3). One bout of exercise may have lasting effects on insulin sensitivity. In healthy humans a single bout of exercise has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity for 4 to 72 hours depending on how long and how hard you exercise.
4). Exercise can help reverse unhealthy organs and cells (like a fatty liver). Large adipocytes (fat cells) impair insulin sensitivity because they store fat in the abdomen and liver. Exercise can help reduce these fat deposits.
So what's the main take away?
Just like your grandmama told you, exercise and a healthy diet are a good idea. They can improve or reverse insulin resistance, meaning that our body can properly use glucose for energy. Even a single bout of exercise can improve insulin sensitivity both short-term and overtime.. Remember that exercise is effective for improving insulin sensitivity regardless of whether you are young or old. So get out there and be active! You were made to Thrive!