This article is about insulin, not diabetes. Diabetic or not, you need to know about insulin. My epiphany about the importance of this hormone occurred when one of my children brought Micah, a friend with Type 1 diabetes, home for dinner. We had a healthy “Mediterranean” dinner – pasta tossed with olive oil, chicken, fresh tomatoes, and cilantro, with accompanying salad and French bread. And birthday cake. Fresh from life in a college dorm, the young friend ate with gusto – at least two helpings of everything. We all did. Later, I found him groggy and in need of two to three times his normal insulin dose. The epiphany was this: all the non-diabetics at the table that night required a lot of insulin to cover hefty carbohydrate intakes, but we were blissfully unaware of the consequences of over-indulgence. We did not have to fill syringes with extra insulin. Our pancreases did the work behind the scenes.
Awash in Insulin
Why was this realization an epiphany? Because we live in an age of excess, consuming large amounts of refined carbohydrates and frequently eating more than our energy requirements demand. We are awash in insulin of our own making and need to understand this hormone’s central role in metabolism. More and more research links insulin to the chronic diseases of civilization: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and Type II diabetes (the variety in which insulin is too plentiful and doesn’t work properly, as opposed to Type I, in which the pancreas fails to produce insulin).
How insulin works
Insulin is the hormone that moves sugar from the blood into all the body’s cells. Blood sugar comes from carbohydrates in food and from glycogen made by liver and muscles as a way to store a twelve-hour supply of sugar. When glycogen stores run out and little food is coming in, as in starvation or very low calorie diets, we make sugar, first from our muscle proteins and then from our fat. The main goal of all metabolism is to keep blood sugar in a tight range – just right for the brain’s needs, because sugar is the only fuel the brain uses under normal circumstances. (It will resort to using ketone bodies, formed from fat in the liver during prolonged fasting or total carbohydrate restriction, but if sugar is available it is the preferred fuel).
Incoming dietary sugar elicits a burst of insulin from the pancreas. Insulin’s job is ferry the needed sugar to cells and to squirrel away extra sugar as glycogen and fat. Insulin is a lipogenic, or fat-producing hormone. Every time we overindulge, insulin goes into high gear to produce fat. It also raises triglyceride levels and lowers high density lipoproteins, exactly the changes in blood lipids that are associated with heart disease.
When insulin fails to work
Insulin is also mysterious. For unknown reasons, many people – one in every three of us – have a tendency to become “resistant” to insulin’s effects. Their pancreases put out more and more insulin to handle routine blood sugar levels. No one knows what makes the insulin inefficient, though fat accumulation in muscle cells may be part of the problem. This stage of “insulin resistance” goes unnoticed for years because there are no symptoms. Blood insulin levels are expensive to measure and difficult to standardize, so they are not part of any kind of routine, preventive screening.
Insulin promotes fat storage
High levels of insulin make fat storage and weight gain easier. Weight gain, particularly around the middle, promotes insulin resistance, and the pancreas responds with yet more insulin. A vicious cycle is underway. Insulin resistance can become so pronounced that blood sugar escapes control and spills into the urine. Insulin resistance is now Type II diabetes, treated with medicines that help insulin work, and ultimately, with shots of yet more insulin. Before this happens, and even afterwards, weight loss and exercise can reverse insulin resistance, leading medical researchers to believe that insulin resistance has something to do with abnormal energy processing in muscle cells. They’ve found that the muscles of some lean, healthy relatives of Type II diabetics show insulin resistance long before there is any fat in muscle, or abnormality in blood insulin levels.
In our sedentary age of super-sized, sugar-laced, low fiber meals, we produce far more insulin than our ancestors did. In addition, the genetic make-up of many people, particularly Hispanics, Native Americans and some African-Americans makes their insulin less effective. We don’t measure insulin levels routinely. Instead, we concentrate on easily-measured cholesterol and fret about fat in the diet. At the same time we are in the middle of an epidemic of insulin resistance and on the verge of an epidemic of Type II diabetes, which is no longer just a disease of middle and older age. For the first time in history, type II diabetes is appearing regularly in children, teens and twenty year olds.
The average American fast food diet sets people on the road to obesity, insulin resistance and type II diabetes. Lack of exercise keeps them there.In a world of easily available food that requires little or no work, the only defense against overeating is mental. Education and self- discipline are the weapons. Insulin-requiring, Type I diabetics like Micah know how much insulin has to be paid out for a big meal. The rest of us have to visualize that syringe full of extra insulin and imagine tucking away excess calories as fat. We have to see ourselves requiring more and more insulin as time goes on and becoming unable to produce enough to meet the needs of an insulin resistant body. It’s enough to make that second helping seem less desirable and regular exercise more attractive.