Many of us (especially those of us living with diabetes) know about insulin. Some of us, more than others. But what most do not know is the significance insulin has on the entire body, right down to each and every individual cell.
In the very open, fluid, ever-changing, perfectly constructed machine of the human body, insulin—the hormone produced in the pancreas—is part of just about every mechanical process. Insulin is a vital part of survival. It’s in charge of hundreds—if not thousands—of reactions and processes in the body.
Most people are familiar with it as the blood sugar regulator. But insulin is in charge of so much more than glucose regulation inside the body. To understand its vast influence over the entire body is to understand insulin’s direct relation to energy use (or metabolism) in the body. It is an absolutely essential piece of the thermodynamics of the metabolic machine.
The simplified thermodynamics theory of calories in, calories out (CICO) as the way the body utilizes energy completely undermines a vastly complex system by removing insulin from the equation. In fact, a study from 2018 found that insulin directly alters metabolic rate.
But it’s not just energy, blood sugar regulation, organization of fuels for storage or oxidation purposes, or protein and mineral metabolism that insulin impacts. It works with individual cells in the human body to establish and maintain a perfectly balanced state of health. And because it is utterly intertwined with every living cell, insulin has widespread effects on just about every part of the human body.
When this marvelous hormone works as it should, in perfect harmony with all the other organs and mechanisms inside our body, there is no reason to vilify it. When it doesn’t, though, is when we see the body go into any number of diseased states, which is exactly where we find much of the global population today.
Not even 100 years ago, the major cause of death worldwide stemmed from infectious disease: pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, and gastrointestinal infection. Today, it’s chronic conditions—like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer—that top the list, many of which are preventable. Additionally, these conditions far outpace all other all-cause mortality by a wide margin. And, they all share a common denominator: hyperinsulinemia.
Hyperinsulinemia and Insulin Resistance
Simply put, hyperinsulinemia is chronically elevated levels of insulin in the blood. It also happens to be the trigger for metabolic dysfunction and the X factor (or syndrome X, as it was first coined by Dr. G.M. Reaven) of chronic condition and disease; there is virtually no organ, gland, or tissue inside the body that is not negatively affected by hyperinsulinemia.
Insulin resistance, similarly, is when insulin does not work as it normally should in the various cells of the body. In some cells, it works properly; in others, it doesn’t. It’s in those cells that insulin does not work properly that hyperinsulinemia is found.
Remember, insulin communicates with every cell in the body. Cells from the bones and brain to the lungs and liver all contain insulin receptors. Insulin takes on a different role depending on the cell. While the effect of insulin varies from cell to cell, they all respond to insulin.
Some cells stop responding to insulin, causing insulin resistance. This refusal on the cellular level to respond to insulin is directly caused by chronically elevated insulin levels, known as hyperinsulinemia. It’s here, at these elevated insulin levels, that illness begins to fester.
Hyperinsulinemia is both a cause and consequence of insulin resistance at the cellular level, which over time creates a cascading effect of disease.
A Biochemical Breakdown of Hyperinsulinemia
Hyperinsulinemia is the main driver of disease due to its direct effects on fat cells. As mentioned before, insulin is the body’s glucose regulator. But it’s also the body’s fat-storage hormone, which plays right into its role in energy metabolism.
Insulin tells fat cells to grow. It stimulates the uptake of nutrients (glucose and fatty acids) and then tells the fat cell what to do with those nutrients as a means to an energy resource.
So insulin is telling each cell—and by extension, the body—what to do with energy. In the case of hyperinsulinemia, the insulin tells these cells to keep growing to the point that the fat cell reaches its absolute maximum circumference.
Almost in a form of self-preservation, the fat cell starts to become unresponsive to insulin. If the fat cell continues to respond to insulin, it will burst; instead, the fat cell refuses to listen to the demands of insulin.
By doing so, the cell begins leaking fat (fatty acids) and pro-inflammatory proteins. The fatty acids and inflammatory proteins then spill insulin resistance to the rest of the body’s organs and tissues, creating an absolute domino effect of cellular destruction in the body.
And over time, in this chronically inflamed state, the disease process begins.
Often, when blood sugar levels rise in a relatively healthy body, the pancreas is still able to produce enough insulin to make up for those rising sugars. But it can quickly turn into a vicious cycle: more sugar (and/or carbohydrates) means more insulin; often, more insulin results in glucose crashes, which means more food, which means more sugar, which means more insulin.
The insulin levels required to keep blood sugars normal keep rising until diabetes or even prediabetes is diagnosed (the hyperinsulinemia pathology occurs much earlier in the process than even the prediabetes symptoms show). Not to mention, such high levels of insulin directly result in more fat storage stores (obesity) and more bodily sickness (hypertension, high cholesterol, etc.).
Consequences of Chronically Elevated Insulin
Insulin stimulates mTOR, the central regulator of metabolism and physiology in the human body. mTOR is deemed central to the aging and deterioration process, meaning that keeping mTOR levels at bay is central to longevity. The current theory (which does remain to be determined) claims that keeping mTOR proteins less activated means the body will age well.
If this theory is true, then it’s also true that keeping insulin levels low will result in better aging processes because insulin stimulates mTOR more than any other hormone inside the body.
Cancers are also incredibly responsive to insulin. If you look at a biopsy of a normal breast tissue and compare it to a biopsy of a breast tumor, the breast tumor has 7 times more insulin receptors in it than the normal breast tissue; the cancerous tumor is 7 times more responsive to insulin. Insulin tells cells to grow, which means cancerous cells—hypersensitive to insulin already—are being told to grow, sevenfold.
PCOS, at its core, is a state of too much insulin. The insulin inhibits the conversion of sex hormones in the ovaries, where the ovaries end up over-producing testosterone when they should be producing estrogen. A typical doctor’s response is to focus exclusively on the testosterone; to give the patient a band-aid like spironolactone to reduce testosterone production. But the root of the problem is too much insulin; simply pushing testosterone levels down only creates an avalanche of other health issues—like infertility—rather than addressing the true culprit.
Almost every chronic disease has some sort of connection to hyperinsulinemia. Notably, not all diseases or conditions that are created from hyperinsulinemia have an elevated glucose issue. This is key. And why insulin—and not glucose—should be the focus.
Treating the Cause & Creating Health
Insulin—and, by association, hyperinsulinemia—is the metric that matters most. It is the X factor. It is also a variable of individual health that we have the most control over. Insulin is directly and acutely impacted and regulated by nutrition and diet.
What creates a metabolically dysfunctional state? What drives chronically high levels of insulin throughout the body? Carbs.
We have the power—naturally—to reduce and resolve hyperinsulinemia. The major upstream causal factor of hyperinsulinemia is dietary starchy carbohydrates: bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, natural fruits like bananas, dried fruits, juices (including freshly squeezed), and sugar in all its forms (even natural).
Carbohydrate reduction is key to not just mastering hyperinsulinemia, but to increasing better health outcomes overall. How to do it? Apply a simple, back-to-basics approach to the way we eat: eat one-ingredient foods (those that don't come packaged), made by the earth.
Food is our most important tool in our medical toolboxes. It works faster, better, and is cheaper than medication. We can all create better health for ourselves by applying food as our first-line of defense.