Insulin Control
by Ian Craig
in Blogs

This is a follow-up to my blog on blood sugar regulation, but more specifically to do with insulin control. Diabetes is a rapidly rising trend in all Western societies and even Eastern countries that have traditionally had very low rates of the disease. Unfortunately countries like India, due to Western dietary influences, are also slowly succumbing to insulin disorders. 

There are various names for insulin and blood sugar dysregulation: insulin resistance is perhaps the most common, but then we also have dysglycemia, hyperinsulinemia, metabolic syndrome and even Syndrome X, which sounds like a made up disease out of a sci fi movie! 

Doctors commonly look only at blood sugar levels in a blood test and (true enough), when these levels are chronically raised above about 6 mmol/litre, the patient is potentially on his or her way to diabetes. But, just like anything in health and medicine, there are many shades of grey between ‘healthy’ and ‘diseased’. If a doctor bothered to tick the ‘insulin’ box on the pathology form, we would have a better idea of which shade of grey the person was in. 

You see, elevated blood sugar levels are very toxic to our articles, which explains why most diabetics end up with cardiovascular complications. So, our pancreas tries its hardest to keep blood sugar levels in reference range - it does this by secreting the hormone insulin each time there is a raise in blood sugar levels away from mid-line. Food can do this, as can stress and also any stimulants such as caffeinated drinks, nicotine and alcohol. So, we can see from a simple fasting insulin blood test whether the pancreas is over-working (with insulin levels above the lab reference range). In the early stages, this will be happening even though blood sugar levels will appear normal. This state of elevated insulin, but normal blood sugar levels can be pretty much called all the names above, such as hyperinsulinemia and metabolic syndrome. 

However, what happens over time is that our insulin receptors become ‘resistant’ to the effects of insulin (just like we gradually down-regulate the activity of our caffeine receptors by drinking too much coffee, meaning that we need more and more coffee to satisfy our buzz). Therefore, more and more insulin is required from the pancreas to do the same blood sugar controlling job. Eventually though, just like any other gland or system in our body, our pancreas gets tired of repeatedly pushing out insulin in high quantities. When insulin levels start to drop because of the exhausted pancreas, blood sugar levels drift upwards and the person is on their way to diabetes. This state is termed Type II diabetes, which is in my mind quite reversible if you can gain better control of your blood sugars and nourish your insulin receptors. I’ve seen this in my sister-in-law who lost control of her blood sugar levels when she adapted a poor quality British diet after emigrating from her native Japan - upon re-applying wholesome Japanese principles, she was able to regain metabolic control. I’ve also seen this process occurring in many of my clients. 

So, assuming that you are in this intermediate state of elevated insulin levels and normal blood sugar levels, or even if you are in a pre-diabetic state of drifting blood sugars, what can you do about it? I won’t repeat everything here because I’ve written previously on dietary methods of controlling blood sugars, but I’ll reiterate a few principles:

Looking at the graph below, we need to adapt a diet that achieves the green curve of blood sugar control. In our book Wholesome Nutrition, I talk about the green wave being a gentle surf wave, which although it might be boring, can be ridden every day without undue fatigue. The red wave, however, is an exciting but unsustainable wave that can only be ridden occasionally without risk of metabolic problems. At every meal, we should look to eat a healthy balance between proteins and good fats and carbohydrates. In other words, try and resist the urge to eat carb-dominant meals and snacks, such as low-fat breakfast cereals, bread and jam or honey, large amounts of fruit (limit to 1-2 pieces if you have metabolic syndrome), pasta meals, and obviously sweet treats. 

Blood sugar curve

In terms of ‘diets’, the Paleo approach is quite good because it has dropped grains out of the equation - although it is not necessarily a low-carb diet as many people believe (it contains starchy veg and fruit); it only contains whole food choices and does a pretty good job of balancing blood sugars. Banting is another approach often recommended to improve blood sugar control. Some individuals have to be quite extreme like this to keep their blood sugars and insulin in check, some people even pushing into a ketogenic (very low carb) state. 

But, I have a warning about using Banting for insulin control - it is not just sugar and carb dominant foods that are the culprits of poor insulin control - otherwise the whole of the Indian sub-continent, eating lentils and rice, would have metabolic syndrome - ironically, this only seems to occur when Indians adopt a Westernised dietary approach… Fats are also crucial when it comes to insulin dynamics - as I mentioned in Wholesome Nutrition, too much saturated fat and/or refined oils in your diet can reduce the flexibility of the insulin receptor, just like sugars can. So be aware of over-doing the animal fats, which you will find in meats and dairy. 

Conversely, how do we improve the flexibility of our insulin receptors and therefore increase insulin sensitivity (opposite of resistance)? Here’s a list for you:

  • - Eliminate man-made sugars and refined carbs from your diet
  • - Eliminate man-made/refined fats and oils from your diet (including refined veg oils, margarines, trans fats, hydrogenated fats etc)
  • - Moderate your intake of saturated fats from meat and dairy
  • - Increase your ‘good’ fats, which come from nuts, seeds and fish, plus their oils
  • - Consume organic cinnamon regularly - on your oats in the morning, in your smoothies etc
  • - Consume only whole grains (such as stone ground sourdough rye bread, brown basmati rice, and quinoa (although it is a seed)), but in moderation
  • - Take a supplement designed for insulin control, which contains a healthy dose of certain B-vitamins, chromium, vanadium and maybe some herbs such as fenugreek and gymnema. See this example of one that I use with clients