Benjamin Bikman earned his Ph.D. in Bioenergetics and was a postdoctoral fellow with the Duke-National University of Singapore in metabolic disorders. Currently, his professional focus as a scientist and professor (Brigham Young University) is to better understand the role of elevated insulin and nutrient metabolism in regulating obesity, diabetes, and dementia.In addition to his academic pursuits, Dr. Bikman is the author of Why we get sick and a co-founder in HLTH Code.
What is insulin resistance and how can we improve it?
What diseases can arise from insulin resistance?
Why do we need to move away from the glucose centric paradigm of metabolic health?
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Does it conjure up visions of restrictive eating, diabetes medications, or insulin injections?
Blood sugar is the measure of the amount of sugar in your blood. You need the right balance of sugar in your blood to fuel your brain and muscles.
The thing is, it can fluctuate. A lot.
This fluctuation is the natural balance between things that increase it; and things that decrease it. When you eat food with sugars or starches (“carbs”), then your digestive system absorbs sugar into your blood. When carbs are ingested and broken down into simple sugars, your body keeps blood sugar levels stable by secreting insulin. Insulin allows excess sugar to get it out of your bloodstream and into your muscle cells and other tissues for energy
Why keep my blood sugar stable?
Your body wants your blood sugar to be at an optimal level. It should be high enough, so you’re not light-headed, fatigued, and irritable. It should be low enough that your body isn’t scrambling to remove excess from the blood.
When blood sugar is too low, this is referred to as “hypoglycemia.”
When blood sugar is too high, it is referred to as hyperglycemia. Prolonged periods of elevated blood sugar levels (chronic hyperglycemia) can lead to “insulin resistance.”
Insulin resistance is when your cells are just so bored of the excess insulin that they start ignoring (resisting) it, and that keeps your blood sugar levels too high.
Insulin resistance and chronic hyperglycemia can lead to inflammation. And inflammation is a contributing factor in the development of cancer.
So let’s look at how you can optimize your food and lifestyle to keep your blood sugar stable.
Food for stable blood sugar
The simplest thing to do to balance your blood sugar is to reduce the number of refined sugars and starches you eat. To do this, you can start by dumping sweet drinks and having smaller portions of dessert.
Eating more fiber is helpful too. Fiber helps to slow down the amount of sugar absorbed from your meal; it reduces the “spike” in your blood sugar level. Fiber is found in plant-based foods (as long as they are eaten in their natural state, processing foods removed fiber). Eating nuts, seeds and whole fruits and veggies (not juiced) is a great way to increase your fiber intake.
FUN FACT: Cinnamon has been shown to help cells increase insulin sensitivity. Not to mention it’s a delicious spice that can be used in place of sugar. (HINT: It’s in the recipe below)
Lifestyle for stable blood sugar
Exercise also helps to improve your insulin sensitivity; this means that your cells don’t ignore insulin’s call to get excess sugar out of the blood. Not to mention, when you exercise, your muscles are using up that sugar they absorbed from your blood. But you already knew that exercise is healthy, didn’t you?
Would you believe that stress affects your blood sugar levels? Yup! Stress hormones increase your blood sugar levels. If you think about the “fight or flight” stress response, what fuel do your brain and muscles need to “fight” or “flee”? Sugar! When you are stressed signals are sent to release stored forms of sugar back into the bloodstream, increasing blood sugar levels. So, try to reduce the stress you’re under and manage it more effectively. Simple tips are meditation, deep breathing, or gentle movement.
Sleep goes hand-in-hand with stress. When you don’t get enough quality sleep, you tend to release stress hormones, have a higher appetite, and even get sugar cravings. Sleep is crucial, often overlooked, factor when it comes to keeping your blood sugar stable. Make sleep more of a priority – it will do your blood sugar (and the rest of your physical and mental health) good.
Your body is on a constant 24-hour quest to keep your blood sugar stable. The body has mechanisms in place to do this, but those mechanisms can get tired (resistant). Long-term blood sugar issues can spell trouble.
There are many nutrition and lifestyle approaches you can take to help keep your blood sugar stable. Minimizing excessive carbs, and eating more fiber, exercising, reducing stress, and improving sleep are all key to having stable blood sugar (and overall good health).
Recipe (blood sugar balancing): Cinnamon Apples
2 apples, chopped
1 tbsp coconut oil
½ tsp ground cinnamon
⅛ tsp sea salt
¼ tsp vanilla extract
Place chopped apples into a small saucepan with 2 tbsp water. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally. After about 5 minutes the apples will become slightly soft, and water will be absorbed.
Add 1 tbsp coconut oil. Stir apples and oil together.
Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring every minute or so.
Add cinnamon, salt, and vanilla. Stir well.
Cook for another few minutes, stirring until the apples reach your desired softness!
Serve and enjoy!
Tip: Keeping the peel on increases the fiber, which is even better for stabilizing your blood sugar.
Insulin is a hormone. It is made and secreted by the pancreas.
Functions of Insulin
The functions of insulin include:
Regulation of fats, proteins and carbohydrate metabolism
Helping cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream
Helping to regulate levels of glucose in the bloodstream. Insulin helps to remove the glucose from the blood and put it into fat and tissue cells where it can be stored for energy.
The production of insulin is stimulated by eating. When all is running tickety-boo, insulin rises when we consume food, does its job and then goes back to its resting levels. Our bodies always need some circulating insulin, even when we are not eating.
When food has not been consumed for a period of time, usually between 12-20 hours, this level of insulin is called the fasting insulin level.
If our bodies stop responding well to insulin, in many cases due to poor diet and lifestyle choices, this can lead to a condition called insulin resistance. In the earlier stages of insulin resistance, the pancreas will notch up its production of insulin to keep glucose levels normal. So if your fasting glucose levels are tested within this paradigm, all may look well. However you may not be getting an accurate picture of what is truly going on. Because while your blood sugar level may be within normal range, it could be due to your body compensating for blood sugar issues by elevating your insulin levels.
Insulin resistance in its early stages does not often present with symptoms. Symptoms begin to appear once insulin resistance leads to secondary effects such as higher blood sugar levels. When this happens, the symptoms may include:
Weight gain around the middle (belly fat)
High blood pressure
High cholesterol levels
Many diseases are linked to elevated fasting insulin levels including:
High blood pressure
Type II diabetes
Polycystic ovary syndrome
Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
A simple blood draw, testing for your fasting insulin level, could be a very important indicator of your health.
Ways to decrease insulin resistance
There are diet and lifestyle changes that can go a long way to decreasing insulin resistance:
Avoid simple carbohydrates. Eat a balanced whole foods diet with a focus on plant-based eating
Get regular exercise
Get consistent good quality sleep
Increase intake of daily fibre aiming for 30-40 grams per day
Magnesium is a mineral and is involved in over 300 enzymatic functions within our body including protein synthesis, blood pressure regulation, muscle and nerve function, energy production and blood glucose management. In its management of blood glucose levels, magnesium therefore can play a role in decreasing risk factors for Type 2 Diabetes and to further this can decrease the risk for cancers of the colon, breast, pancreas and liver.
Blood levels of glucose are elevated after we eat and it is the role of insulin, which is secreted by the pancreas, to push that glucose in to our cells. If glucose is consistently elevated, the pancreas is called upon to continually secrete insulin to try and move that glucose from our blood in to the cells. The result of this chronically elevated insulin level is that the receptors on our cells for insulin stop responding with the result that glucose does not get removed from our blood stream and blood glucose levels rise. This condition is better known as insulin resistance.
This study helps us to understand how magnesium influences insulin resistance demonstrating that magnesium is critical for our insulin receptors to function properly. The study also brings to light the fact that high insulin levels can cause an increase in the amount of urinary magnesium excreted from the kidneys. Thus someone with sub par magnesium levels can
“enter a vicious circle in which hypomagnesemia causes insulin resistance and insulin resistance reduces serum Mg(2+) concentrations
Getting the daily recommended amount of magnesium, 420mg per day for men and 320 mg per day for women is therefore very important for managing blood sugar and in turn for fighting disease. To ensure that you are achieving your recommended daily allowance of magnesium include foods high in magnesium such as spinach, swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, kefir, black beans, bananas and avocados in your diet daily.