A warning from your pancreas

If you’re like millions of Americans, children included, and your pancreas could talk, it might be yelling something like this:

“Jesus! How much more do you want to put me through? I’ve been supporting your excess body weight for years now and I am not coping well over here. You are becoming insulin resistant!”

I know that wasn’t subtle, but an estimated one third of Americans are insulin resistant. I don’t find that number astounding given how many of us are overweight. Pancreases all over America are going into overdrive and no one can hear them scream.

One of the major functions of the pancreas is to sense rises in blood sugar (glucose) levels and release a hormone called insulin. Insulin then drives the glucose into the cells of the body.

Actually, most cells take up glucose without the help of insulin. Mainly two tissue types in the body require insulin for their fuel needs: fat cells (adipose tissue) and skeletal muscle (all the muscles throughout the body which enable locomotion).

What’s that? Insulin is required for two cell types? Yes, it is. However if you think about it, your muscle and fat tissue make up the largest proportions of your body.

So now you can begin to understand that with weight gain the pancreas has to work harder to secrete more insulin in order to cover the glucose requirements of larger amounts of adipose tissue.

But why does this make your cells resistant to insulin?

Here’s an analogy: Do you have a younger sibling or a terribly annoying friend? Have they ever poked you over and over again? Did you reach a point where you just didn’t feel the poking anymore? If so, you became resistant to the bothersome prodding. The pressure receptors in your skin took a timeout when the same stimulus was applied over and over again, protecting themselves from damage by overstimulation.

In the same way many people become insulin resistant when they are overweight because the pancreas has to secrete excess insulin to support increased body fat. The cells start to become resistant to insulin’s advances because their insulin receptors are overstimulated. Blood sugar levels remain elevated so the pancreas secretes more insulin, making the resistance worse, never better.

And then guess what? Once the pancreas can’t get blood sugar levels to return to normal by pumping excess insulin, you’re prediabetic. Then the time comes when there’s only so much this little organ can take. It just can’t go on working in overdrive. One day, it’s almost with certainty that its capacity to produce insulin will be severely compromised and full-blown type II diabetes will be your new way of life.

What can you do?

For most of us, keeping a healthy diet and keeping weight down will reverse or prevent insulin resistance from occurring. Notice I wrote “many people become insulin resistant when they are overweight.” A very small minority of genetically stellar individuals won’t develop diabetes with increased body mass. Their pancreases are able to cope.

Conversely a minority of genetically unlucky individuals might develop insulin resistance and diabetes later in life even at a normal body weight. In this case there is a place for medication that helps with insulin sensitivity. Though, I can’t stress enough that maintaining stable blood sugar levels by keeping a healthy lifestyle will lessen the need for medication.

I know it’s hard to lose weight and stay healthy, I’ve been there, but I’ll give you a few starting tips:

1. The most important part of your health and what will make the biggest difference in weight loss is what you put in your mouth. Start cutting down your processed carbohydrate intake (breads, cookies, many packaged items with loads of added sugar, etc). Nobody is perfect. Enjoy them seldomly.

There is nothing whole about whole wheat bread. Turn the package over and you’ll see it’s made out of whole wheat FLOURS. Milled down carbs, even if they’re from whole grains will cause large blood sugar fluctuations. I’ve notice many whole wheat processed products have added sugar as well.

You will keep your fat stores up if you continually eat processed carbs because they rapidly break down into sugar which will call on insulin. Insulin drives fat storage. You need to eat less of these foods to burn off your excess stores of fat.

2. If you eat whole carbs like quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat etc., eat them together with vegetables and fat so that your blood sugar levels do not spike drastically. The fiber in the whole carbs and veggies, and the fat will slow the absorption of carbohydrate, mitigating the rise in blood sugar levels, and therefore the release of insulin.

3. There’s too much fat-free nonsense in the American diet. Fat-free foods taste like cardboard—like fat-free yogurt—so they are compensated with tons of sugar. Just what you need more of, right? Don’t short change your body by vilifying fat (unless it’s hydrogenated or trans fat).

Do not be afraid of healthy fats and even some saturated fat—foods like nuts, eggs, olive oil, avocados, fish. Your body’s cells are constructed from a substantial portion of cholesterol and saturated fat. Fat does not make you fat. Processed carbohydrates do.

4. Do you find yourself hungry in between meals? Eat a ton of vegetables. Eat as many veggies as you want. Fill up on the fiber. Fruits can be high in sugar but they are also high in fiber so you can eat some of those too. And there are some tasty ones in season here in Maine like strawberries and blueberries. Remember to drink water adequately so that you can move the fiber down the GI tract! Otherwise things might get a little stuck, if you know what I mean.

5. An interesting thing about muscle is that its contraction facilitates the uptake of glucose from the blood stream without the help of insulin. Try doing simple things like walking places you need to go, taking the stairs at work, walking during your lunch break, an evening walk after dinner, etc. Maine has a lot of beautiful walking and hiking trails. Take advantage of them.

If you have time to work in daily exercise then choose something you like. It doesn’t have to be the latest crazy intense exercise regimen hosted by an obnoxiously fit, hyper instructor.

6. Do not think of weight loss as a rapid “get er done” crusade. Start slow with these tips and see this as a lifestyle change that you must accomplish over time by forming new habits and kicking old ones out of your life.

In my next post I’ll be writing more about the misconceptions of fats in the American diet, and the importance of insulin’s impact on fat metabolism.

Ashley Rekem

About Ashley Rekem

I am a California transplant who now calls Maine home. I have a degree in Biology and enjoy researching and communicating how the body works.