Why Insulin is about so much more than controlling blood glucose
Posted on 25th August 2021 at 07:42
A couple of weeks ago we wrote about Type II Diabetes and the recent change in focus that’s aimed at trying to diagnose potential problems at a much earlier stage. Unfortunately, rather than encouraging people to address the issue earlier, it seems to be having completely the opposite effect. Causing complete confusion, coupled with a feeling of inevitability, meaning that a golden opportunity to take early action is wasted. If you missed it, you can find the post here.
Before we go any further, let’s start with a quick reminder about the traditional “Insulin controls blood glucose” understanding of Insulin. As you may remember, Insulin is a hormone produced by the Pancreas, a gland found just below – and behind – the Stomach. It’s released when the amount of glucose circulating in the Blood starts to rise and helps shunt it into the Cells, where it’s used as fuel. If there’s more glucose than the Cells require it’s sent on to the Liver to be stored at glycogen. As the levels of glucose in the Blood start to fall, less Insulin is released, in a process known as “Negative Feedback”.
If you haven’t eaten for a while, as blood glucose levels start to fall, the Liver converts glycogen back into glucose. It’s then released back into the Blood and taken to the Cells to be used as fuel.
In very simple terms, problems can occur in two different ways:
The first is when the Cells start to become “Insulin Resistant”. This means they aren’t so responsive to Insulin and require larger and larger amounts to have the same effect. So, as blood glucose levels rise, more and more Insulin has to be released to shunt it into the Cells. In other words, Insulin Resistance means there are elevated levels of both glucose AND Insulin in the blood for much longer periods of time than is “normal.”
The second follows on from this, with the Pancreas becoming exhausted – for want of a better word – as it tries to produce sufficient amounts of Insulin for the Cells to respond to it. So, again, there are elevated levels of glucose and Insulin in the blood BUT, in addition, glucose levels remain elevated on an ongoing basis. With it come classic symptoms of Type II Diabetes, as the body tries to remove the excess glucose in other ways, primarily in the Urine. Hence, increased thirst as the body tries to get the necessary fluids to flush the glucose out, coupled with more frequent trips to the loo.
It’s easy to see why diagnosing Insulin Resistance is so important as an early marker of Type II Diabetes in the future. Added to this, with it being related to Lifestyle Factors, it’s one that can be addressed IF the person has the necessary information and support.
However, this is only the start. With the focus being on Insulin’s role in keeping blood glucose within safe limits, its link to many other health conditions is missed. Particularly as an early warning sign of other potentially more serious problems. These can be summarised in two different ways. The effects of elevated levels of Insulin and glucose in the Blood AND the Cells requiring ever increasing levels of Insulin to trigger a response. Which brings us neatly back to many Chronic and Lifestyle related conditions, whose incidence has been increasing dramatically in recent years. Obesity, High Blood Pressure and other Cardiovascular problems, Elevated Cholesterol and more.
At first glance, the links may not be obvious until you start to look at the many other processes Insulin plays a part in, both directly and indirectly. The list is a long one and, as research is discovering, growing longer by the day. It can more easily be understood with two words that are often used in connection with Insulin. Hormone. Anabolic.
The first, hormone, means a chemical substance that acts as a messenger and travels around the body to help control other Cells and Organs. And the important words here are “travels” and “controls.” This means that many of its effects are far away from the Pancreas, where it was originally released.
The second, anabolic, refers to a sequence of chemical reactions that build something bigger. An easy example many people have heard of are the anabolic steroids used by body builders to help increase / build additional muscles mass. In other words, Insulin tends to encourage things to “grow” or increase in some way – and we’re using that word in the widest possible context, no pun intended (!).
Put these two together for a quick and easy description of Insulin’s effects – across the body as a whole and helping to build something bigger; particularly in excess levels.
Let’s look at a few examples of the many processes Insulin plays a part in and, more importantly, what Insulin Resistance – or an excess of Insulin – can mean for the body as a whole:
Along with helping control blood glucose, Insulin also plays a key role in helping control blood pressure. These two are very closely linked, with excess blood glucose being a major driver of increased blood pressure. So, it’s not surprising that blood glucose tends to be focussed upon.
However, as part of this process, Insulin also acts on the Kidneys, stimulating the release of another hormone, Aldosterone. Aldosterone helps remove excess salt and water from the Blood, both of which also play a part in raised blood pressure. The Kidneys remove them from the Blood, sending them to the Bladder to be passed in Urine. Unfortuantely, as Insulin levels rise, so do Aldosterone’s, leading to increasing amounts of water and salt being removed from the Blood. Not only can this damage the Kidneys, but high levels of Aldosterone also irritate the lining of Blood Vessels leading to inflammation, scarring, plaque and Cardiovascular problems.
Matters can then be made worse by another of Insulin’s roles, this time in helping control blood calcium levels. As more Insulin is released into the Blood, the Kidneys remove increasing amounts of calcium which, again, passes into the Urine to be removed from the body. Unfortunately, the calcium can also build up in the Kidneys themselves, leading to Kidney Stones and, ultimately, Kidney failure.
Taken together, it’s easy to see how excess Insulin is playing a part in several different problems. Raised blood glucose and blood pressure, Kidney damage and Kidney Stones, Cardiovascular Problems.
As well as helping control blood glucose, Insulin also plays a part in fat metabolism. In other words whether fat is burnt for fuel or stored in Adipose Tissue. As Insulin levels rise, fat stops being burnt for fuel with all too predictable affects, particularly round the middle (!).
Alongside all of this, Insulin also plays a part in the production of Cholesterol by the Liver and its release into the Blood to be used by the Cells. However, Cholesterol is also used for repair and is deposited on the inner surface of blood vessels to help smooth over the damage from inflammation and scarring. While this does narrow the blood vessels, it ensures that blood continues to flow smoothly through them. Again, as Insulin levels rise so does the production of Cholesterol, which can also result in the formation of Gallstones and Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.
And here’s one that’s a well known symptom of Type II Diabetes, the slowing down of digestion. This is because Insulin helps support normal digestion, particularly the process of Peristalsis, the wavelike movement which helps move the food through the Digestive System. High levels of Insulin have been found to damage the Nerves controlling this process, so slowing down the movement of food, with all too obvious results.
Finally, let’s finish with one that sounds very simple but has body wide ramifications. It’s the part Insulin plays in the repair and replacement of Cells. In simple terms, the body is either in a state of growth or repair. However, as already mentioned, Insulin in anabolic, encouraging things to “grow” in some way. So, as levels of Insulin rise – and remain so – it triggers a gene pathway telling the body to “grow” which, in turn, switches “off” the repair pathway. This means there’s less and less time available for the body to repair, with all too predictable results. Increased damage, particularly of the Cardiovascular System. Faster ageing. Chronic and Lifestyle related diseases.
There are so many more examples we could give, but these few illustrate just how wide and varied Insulin’s effects are. Yet again, it highlights just how important lifestyle choices are and how much wider their effects can be than a particular diagnosis or label.
So, what’s the message we’d like to leave you with?
Well, as always, it’s a positive one. Good news, not doom, gloom and despondency. Yes, really! Not only are Type II Diabetes and Insulin Resistance reversible but it’s in our hands. Once again, it’s down to the simple things we do every day that build up to create great results – or, at the other end, a potential disaster.
As always, the choice is yours.
Photograph by unknown author
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