A basic understanding of the role insulin plays in the body will demystify and change your relationship with the foods you eat, especially sugar. Everyone knows they should eat fewer carbs and most have some idea about things like insulin, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes… yet there’s a disconnect.
While there is an amazingly elegant cascade of chemical and cellular reactions that allows insulin to do what it does, we will benefit much more from understanding what it does rather than how it does it.
I like to think of the body as a massive factory. The blood vessels are the hallways, the organs are departments, the cells are the rooms within the departments where all the real work gets done, and insulin are the workers responsible for managing the fuel supply. Insulin has several responsibilities, but for the sake of this discussion, we are going to focus on three of them.
Keep the glucose fuel at the right level in the hallways
Maintain a steady supply of fuel to each room for energy production
Manage the storage of excess fuel
The hallways are busy busy places. Each room in the entire factory is supplied either directly or indirectly using the hallways. This factory is in operation 24/7, so imagine all the supplies coming in and all the waste going out.
If the glucose fuel levels get too low, then the vital factory rooms start to shut down, notably in the brain department… and we can’t have that. Too much glucose fuel is toxic, so we can’t have that either. The insulin needs to keep the glucose fuel level within a certain range for everything to work correctly.
When a 24 ounce bottle of soda enters the factory, the glucose fuel level in the hallways increase, and insulin springs into action by sending out an appropriate amount of workers to handle the job. Insulin has a few options. First it goes to the liver department to check and see if they have room to store some for later. If the liver department has room, then glucose is converted to glycogen and stored. Next, it knocks on the door of all the rooms to see if they could use some of this extra glucose to make energy. Rooms in the muscle department consume a large amount of the fuel and can also store glucose as glycogen. Any remaining glucose is combined with fatty acids, converted to triglycerides, and stored in the fat department.
When there’s an overabundance of glucose fuel, insulin slows down the use of fat fuel. It might seem silly to keep saying glucose fuel and fat fuel, rather than just glucose and fat, but that’s really what’s going on. The factory needs to make energy and these are simply its fuel options. Consequently, insulin also instructs the factory to increase the production of cholesterol.
As glucose levels return to normal, insulin workers exit the hallways and return to the breakroom. Their absence allows fat burning to increase again over time.
Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes
We’ve taken our factory analogy this far… I guess we better just keep going. In 1700, the average factory in England used about 4 pounds of sugar per year. The average factory in America currently uses 77 pounds per year. That’s not a typo! 300 years ago the factories were built the same as they are today, but today take in 1825% more carb fuels.
Before we go on, I just want to pause and appreciate an 1825% increase in just 300 years!
This entire article could be distilled down to… “We eat 1825% more sugar than we did 300 years ago”… done
What if we drove the same number of miles next year, but bought 1825% more gasoline?
Water’s good right? It’s recommended we drink a lot of water. Let’s say you drink four 8 ounce glasses a day now. That’s not enough! Let’s increase that 1825%. What could go wrong, it’s only water. That would be just shy of 5 gallons per day. Water intoxication is rare, but a very real and deadly thing. Do NOT drink that much water.
What if your mother-in-law would visit 1825% more?
My point is simply this; it’s not that sugar is bad for you, it’s that an 1825% increase in nearly anything can turn a good thing into a very bad thing.
300 years ago, insulin had a friendly working relationship with each room in each department. Knock, knock… “Hi, it’s insulin. We have some extra glucose, would you like some?” “Oh boy, we sure would. Thank you insulin, you’re the best!” With the constant influx of sugar today, that relationship can start to get strained. Knock, knock… knock, knock… knock, knock… “Guys, I know you’re in there. I know I was just here, but can you PLEASE take some of this glucose? Guys? Guys?”
Let’s leave the factory and get back to the body to finish this up.
When our cells start ignoring insulin, blood glucose levels will remain high, signaling the body to produce and secrete even more insulin. Abnormally high insulin levels are known as hyperinsulinemia, which is associated with obesity, especially visceral fat. Visceral fat is that abdominal fat on the inside, not the pinch an inch fat. It’s that fat that surrounds the organs in our abdomen and a little of it is great. A lot of visceral fat will cause issues like chronic inflammation and high blood pressure. Hyperinsulinemia also goes hand in hand with dyslipidemia (high cholesterol and/or fat in the blood), and it’s a warning sign for type 2 diabetes.
The good news is that most of the time this is all preventable and even reversible, as long as the pancreatic function hasn’t yet been damaged.
I hope this gave you a fresh perspective on insulin’s role in the body and why we are seeing so many issues related to it in America today.
Next week we’ll look at some science based approaches to increasing insulin sensitivity and an easy test for you to do at home. In the meantime, just be sensible with your sugar intake. Of course if you’re concerned about anything I’ve talked about, please talk it over with your doctor.
factory photo by zoetnet (flickr creative commons)