Eating for Better Hormone Health: What Is Insulin Resistance?

sharing-a-biteAs the holiday season begins, let’s remember a simple truth: We are what we eat! Believe it or not, the holidays are a great time to think about healthy eating. At the Ageless & Wellness Medical Center, we focus on whole-person, holistic health care, and that means looking at your long-term goals for a healthy life. We know that a slice of pie is not going to ruin your life! We also believe that eating healthy good food is an important act of self-care, a gift that you can give to yourself every day. Every bite of food you put into your body is either making you healthier — or not. What you choose to eat is either helping your hormonal production, or contributing to hormonal imbalance. Hormones control our digestion, our moods, our energy, our libido, our metabolism, and more. When we do not eat food with the nutrients our bodies need, we cannot expect our bodies to effectively produce the hormones we need. Without the “building blocks” for healthy hormones, our bodies cannot maintain hormonal balance!

We always recommend you avoid, or at least minimize, “processed foods” in your diet. Why? Most processed foods, are literally “designed” in a food science lab to elicit overwhelming biochemical signals compelling us to eat more. These nutrient-poor foods made with synthetic chemicals are cheap to manufacture; they overstimulate our taste buds and alter our hormones in surprisingly widespread ways. Think about it: fruit-flavored candy is far sweeter than real fruit. Potato chips are saltier and more addictive than real potatoes! Why? These are products, not real food. Our brains and bodies are hardwired to respond to flavors of salt, sweet, and fat in foods. It is easy for our bodies to get “dazzled” by the “supernormal stimuli” in processed foods, and our brains get fooled into eating them again and again.

There are several important hormones that are affected by eating too many processed foods, especially those high in sugar, or simple carbohydrates. High levels of blood sugar hijack your brain chemistry and metabolism, causing a condition called “insulin resistance.” Insulin is a hormone secreted in the pancreas in response to your body’s ingestion of carbs and sugar, and affects nearly every cell in your body! Insulin is a hormone “courier” that moves glucose (blood sugar) from your bloodstream into your cells to be used for energy.

In a healthy “insulin sensitive” body, insulin moves glucose (sugar) from your bloodstream to be absorbed into your cells. The amount of insulin released by the pancreas creates just the right balance for glucose to be extracted from your bloodstream, and then stored in your muscle, liver, and fat cells. Glucose needs to remain at a normal level (not too high, not too low) for other crucial functions, like growth, movement, immune response, and cell repair to be carried out. Visualize it like this: Insulin calls your cells on the phone, and when the cells answer the call, glucose is absorbed, and blood sugar levels easily stay in a normal range.

In an “insulin resistant” body, however, too much glucose constantly overloads your system, making your cells become desensitized, or numb. Insulin calls your cells, but there’s no answer — the phone is ringing off the hook! When the cells are slow to answer, the pancreas makes more (and more) insulin. Prolonged levels of high insulin cause your pancreas to become worn out trying to meet the perceived demand. This disrupts your metabolism, increases inflammation, and eventually your cells just stop responding. Insulin is a fat-storage hormone, so when there are increased circulating levels of insulin in your body, one result is weight gain, especially around the waist. Other common symptoms include fatigue, thirst, or the afternoon “slump.” Some experts estimate that 25 to 50% of people in the United States are likely insulin resistant. Insulin resistance syndrome is sometimes called “pre-diabetes,” or Metabolic Syndrome, and health risks include diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, heart disease, and stroke. Some studies have also shown higher risks of Alzheimer’s and some cancers.

In the following post, we will discuss other hormones that are affected by the foods you eat, including leptin (the “satiety” hormone) and cortisol (the stress hormone).
All that being said, there is no reason you cannot eat apple pie or drizzle on the gravy. Just keep in mind your long-term goals for healthy eating, and balance your choices. This holiday season, make a few small but significant changes:

(1) Try “crowding out” the less-than-healthy options with larger portions of healthier foods. Do not deprive yourself. Have seconds on the veggies, and then enjoy a slice of pie!

(2) Enjoy everything you choose, eat slowly, eat mindfully. Eating slowly helps your body break down and thoroughly digest nutrients correctly, giving you all the bang for your buck.

(3) Make conscious choices about what you choose to eat, no matter what it is. Consider adding more vegetable side dishes to your holiday table, or preparing healthier versions of old favorites, like sweet potato casserole. You may find new recipes you love, and start delicious new traditions!