How to Keep Your Body’s Four Most Important Hormones in Balance: Part Two – Insulin.
This is the second in the four-part series to examine how our body’s four key hormones—cortisol, insulin, estrogen, and testosterone—all work in tandem to keep us balanced and healthy, as well as how to recognize and treat imbalances naturally through diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes. PART ONE explains how CORTISOL, which, when out of balance, can have the biggest impact on the function of the body’s other three key hormones. PART TWO tackles INSULIN, which plays a vital role in our energy levels, weight maintenance, and can directly impact our sex hormones when out of balance.
What does it do? For non-diabetics, insulin likely isn’t an everyday consideration even though it plays a vital role in our energy levels and appetite. As our body processes food into glucose, that glucose enters the bloodstream and prompts the pancreas to produce insulin—the hormone that moves glucose into muscle, fat, and liver cells to be stored as energy for later. When there is too much glucose and insulin in the bloodstream, the cells fill up quickly. Once they have enough, the cells actually become “resistant” to the insulin, causing what is known as insulin resistance. Experts estimate that 35 to 50 percent of the U.S. population is insulin resistant. Insulin resistance can lead to a variety of health issues including type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer.
What causes an imbalance? Because cortisol draws on these glucose reserves when you’re physically or emotionally stressed, chronically high cortisol levels will create a vicious cycle where more and more glucose enters your bloodstream and more and more insulin is produced. An even more common cause, however, is a diet full of sugar and simple carbohydrates. When we eat lots of sugar, or foods easily converted into sugar (such as cereals, pasta, and refined flour), our pancreas produces more insulin to keep up with all the glucose. Once our muscle cells have stored all the glucose they can, the excess gets stockpiled into fat cells—essentially turning insulin into the fat storage hormone.
What are signs of an imbalance? Signs of too much insulin can include weight gain (especially around the midsection), sugar cravings, fatigue after eating, and even skin tags. Over time, elevated insulin levels lead to insulin resistance, characterized by high blood sugar and unstable insulin levels. But, it’s not just insulin resistance that we become at risk for. An insulin imbalance also disrupts our reproductive hormones, leads to hair loss on the head and growth on the chin and chest in women, and weight gain in both sexes.
How can I increase my insulin sensitivity? Because insulin is so easily impacted by too-high cortisol levels, it is critical to get that hormone under control (for help balancing your cortisol levels, please see PART ONE). You can also help support healthy insulin levels through diet and exercise, as outlined below:
• Through food: In addition to choosing low-glycemic and whole, unprocessed foods, some of the best choices to boost your insulin sensitivity include fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and anchovies; a variety of colorful, fiber- and vitamin-rich vegetables; legumes such as lentils and chickpeas; and nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, and flax. Research also shows that cinnamon and apple cider vinegar can also help regulate blood sugar.
• Through exercise: While anything that gets you moving will help, research shows that a combination of low-impact cardio and resistance training has the biggest impact on lowering insulin levels. Try combining strength training with swimming, cycling, power-walking, or even machines like the elliptical.
•• What you should avoid: When it comes to lowering your insulin levels and better regulating your blood sugar, it’s important that you make some lifestyle changes. These include reducing stress, getting more sleep, incorporating more movement into your day (especially if you’re sedentary at work), and switching your diet to whole, unprocessed foods. Read labels carefully to ensure refined sugar hasn’t been added to something, and avoid processed carbs such as bread, cereals, and pasta. If you are also experiencing problems with cortisol, you’ll want to eliminate caffeine, as it can stimulate cortisol production in those already under stress.