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Let's Discuss: Insulin (aka the Mario transport)

You may know someone who uses insulin or has talked about having "blood sugar issues". But did you know insulin is a hormone? A major one at that. It plays a crucial role in how our bodies manage blood sugar, but many people are unfamiliar with this vital hormone and its functions in the body. For women struggling to lose weight, particularly during the perimenopause or menopause stage, this is a crucial area of focus in order to see success in the battle with the scale. For women with PCOS (poly-cystic ovarian syndrome) or infertility, insulin’s dance with blood sugar can often be the hidden gem that can unlock hormonal “balance” and jump-start infertility. Whether you're already dealing with diabetes, or simply want to learn more about your health, this blog post will provide you with a comprehensive overview of insulin, its significance, and how it affects your well-being.

What exactly is Insulin? Insulin is a hormone, you know one of my FAVORITE topics! It is produced by the pancreas, a gland located behind your stomach (on the middle, upper part of your abdomen for those curious, just behind the stomach where the ribs meet at the center of your chest). It serves as a critical messenger in the body's metabolic processes. Did you catch that word…metabolic; as in, the body’s ability to utilize the food you eat and translate it into energy. It’s kind of a big deal. Insulin's primary role is to regulate the amount of glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream, ensuring that your cells receive the energy they need. Like Goldilocks, your cells want just the right amount of sugar at a very particular rate. Too little and you lose function, too much and you lose function. The key is finding the right level of insulin to keep the right amount of sugar moving into the cells. It’s a fine balance.

How Does Insulin Work?

1. Glucose Absorption: short summary--eating triggers insulin release. Long version: After you eat, your mouth (saliva), stomach and small intestines all work to break down carbohydrates into glucose (aka sugar or quick energy), which is then released into your bloodstream. Elevated blood glucose levels raise the alarm for assistance from the pancreas and trigger the release of insulin. This is referred to as a “sugar spike”, followed by the insulin spike. 2. Cellular Uptake: Insulin acts like a Mario transport tube that helps sugar go from bloodstream into your body's cells. Jumping through the insulin transport tube, the sugar goes thru the cell membrane wall—remember high school biology, allowing the cells to access and be able to use this quick energy. (Raise your hand if you just heard the Mario transport sound effect). This process provides cells with the energy necessary for their functions. Functions like creating new DNA, new cells, cleaning up “cellular debris” and repairing cellular damage.

3. Storage: Excess glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, a form of stored energy. However, when these spaces get overrun like a hoarder’s garage, the body will divert this storage to the adipose cells (aka fat cells). Think of it as your airplane being diverted to the middle of Nebraska, when you were meant to go to Maui. Yea, it’s no good. When blood glucose levels drop between meals (or during times of fasting) or during physical activity—when those muscle need energy, the stored glycogen is converted back into glucose and released into the bloodstream to maintain stable blood sugar levels. Otherwise known as, “burning” fat. This is the good stuff when done properly and in a controlled approach. The wild rollercoaster of sugar crashes and insulin spikes can backfire on you by raising cortisol. 4. Turning on/off the “burn” switch: When insulin goes up, the body stores energy. When insulin is low, the body burns energy. The goal... keep insulin levels stable. AWLAYS. 5. Cortisol: As insulin goes up, glucose crashes which can make the body hit the "panic button" or begin to be stressed. By the same token, constantly elevated blood sugar levels can always set off the panic button. If there are chronic, underlying inflammatory issues in the body (or long-term external stressors) the stress response will trigger the production of excess glucose and insulin; which can cause elevated levels in the bloodstream and create a “cell resistant” pattern. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Insulin and Diabetes Diabetes is a chronic condition characterized by the inability of the body to:

- effectively produce insulin (Type 1, insulin-dependent)

-use insulin (insulin resistance)

-the cells inability to accept more glucose OR

-the liver producing excess sugar due to cortisol and eating in a way that spikes insulin, rather than sustained levels

In any of these situation the cells do not get the energy they need and may not respond to insulin signals, resulting in dysfunctional blood sugars and the brain sensing stress. There are two primary types of diabetes:

1. Type 1 Diabetes: In this autoimmune condition, the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. People with type 1 diabetes require daily insulin injections or an insulin pump to manage their blood sugar levels. 2. Type 2 Diabetes: This form of diabetes typically develops in adulthood and is often associated with lifestyle factors like poor diet, sedentary behavior, and obesity. It can also be associated with hormonal disruptions like PCOS or a drop in estrogen during perimenopause/menopause! In type 2 diabetes, the body’s cells becomes “resistant” to insulin OR the pancreas may not produce enough to meet the body's needs. Treatment may involve lifestyle changes, oral medications, or insulin therapy. It is often reversible, which is super cool. 3. PCOS + fertility + perimenopause: for women, insulin is also a major player in ovarian function and health. High insulin levels stimulate specific cells in the ovaries to produce more androgens (or “male” hormones) which can throw off many other hormones and create issues with things like facial hair, acne, oily skin, infertility/poor ovulation, sleep, mood and weight. It’s a real riot, for sure.

The Importance of Insulin Management Proper insulin management is critical for everyone!! As long-term, uncontrolled insulin and blood sugar levels can lead to serious complications, including heart disease, kidney problems, nerve damage, and vision issues. Here are some key points to consider:

1. Balancing Insulin: Everyone knows how much sugar is in most foods, we know how much some foods may raise the the blood sugar (glycemic index) BUT, what many do not know is that not all “low glycemic foods” are equal. One example, red meat was found to elevate the insulin levels, but did not illicit a glucose spike. This is newer research being presented and updated regularly, known as the Insulin Index. 2. Balancing Blood Sugar: Regular monitoring of blood sugar levels and adjusting insulin doses as needed is essential for maintaining stable glucose levels. Check out the Glycemic Index to see how your favorite foods may impact your blood sugar. Reaction to glucose intake can be genetically influenced. Some may spike higher with honey vs maple syrup, while others may see a higher spike the opposite way. If you’re interested in learning more about your personal response to glucose intake, you may consider a continuous glucose monitor. 3. Diet and Exercise: Eating the right proportions of healthy fats, proteins and fiber at every meal can go a very long way in keeping blood sugar levels stable. Taking a short 10 min walk after meals in an easy way to help boost glucose usage and stabilized blood sugars, too! A balanced diet (which means your protein, healthy fats and carbohydrate totals are in the right ratios) and regular physical activity can help improve insulin sensitivity and reduce the need for medication in type 2 diabetes, by increasing the muscle cell demands for glucose. As muscle cells require and burn higher amounts of glucose and will for hours after exercise. This is why building and maintaining muscle mass is crucial as we age or seek hormonal balance. 4. Supplements/Medication: For individuals with insulin resistance there are a number of supplements that can be quite effective. For others in the traditional space or those who are Type I diabetes, insulin therapy, along with other medications, may be prescribed to achieve optimal blood sugar control. 5. Individualized Care: Blood sugar management is highly individualized; the root sources of cell resistance is key to sorting out for each person. Working closely with a healthcare provider or nutrition educator is crucial to developing a personalized treatment plan.

Conclusion Insulin is a really cool, necessary hormone that plays a vital role in regulating blood sugar levels (and in turn MANY other hormone levels and body reactions) and ensuring the body's cells receive the energy they need. Understanding how insulin works and its significance is crucial for individuals with hormonal imbalances, weight struggles and infertility. It is a key piece of focus for those interested in maintaining their overall health. By prioritizing proper insulin management, individuals can experience quicker weight loss, stronger muscle development, insanely better sleep, batteries-charged energy all day, stable moods and happier hormones. Who is ready to start tracking some insulin and glucose? If you aren’t sure where to start or would love to have help making changes, our dietician and nutrition coach can help guide you through powerful, transformational nutrition changes. Schedule a quick, free 15-min call to discuss what your dealing with and the best approach.

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