Is Insulin Resistance Causing Your Autoimmune Joint Pain, Belly Fat, and More?
Many conventional doctors ignore insulin resistance. And yet, being insulin resistant is to blame for symptoms like autoimmune joint pain, belly fat, hair loss, and brain fog—to name just a few.
Insulin resistance often gets missed in testing. Instead, the doctor only orders lab tests that focus on fasting glucose or just glucose. If those tests are normal then everything is okay, right? Wrong.
The first thing I look at in autoimmune patients (and in patients with other health challenges) is their insulin levels and markers like hemoglobin A1c, which tells us the average blood sugar measurement over time and how well their body is handling glucose.
So what is insulin resistance, how do you know if it’s affecting your health, and what can you do about it? Let’s take a look.
What Is Insulin Resistance?
Insulin by itself is not the villain here. By its nature, insulin is a good hormone. It’s produced in order to send glucose (blood sugar) into your cells so that your cells can make energy from it. When you don’t make enough insulin, it causes problems.
But for most people the issue is that they’re making too much insulin. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.
If you’re making too much insulin, you’re insulin resistant. It begins when cells in the body start to ignore the blood-sugar-lowering signals that insulin is sending. As the cells stop responding to insulin as effectively over time, the body must make more and more insulin to try to lower blood sugar.
Insulin at high levels becomes an inflammatory hormone. When you have excessive amounts, it will cause inflammation in the body. It promotes fat storage, obesity, prediabetes, and diabetes. An excessive amount of insulin can cause diabetics to develop neuropathy (weakness or pain in the hands in feet), kidney disease, blindness, and cardiovascular disease. Even if you don’t have diabetes, high insulin levels can lead to cardiovascular problems.
We need to have a way to get that glucose into our cells so they can make energy. Insulin is the hormone that opens the receptors to allow the sugar into the cells. This is a key foundational event that needs to happen in every cell of the body. When you become insulin resistant, it affects or diminishes every type of function in the body because your cells just can’t work as well as they should.
The Insulin Resistance Myth
A lot of people—including conventional doctors—mistakenly believe that in order to have insulin resistance you need to have diabetes or prediabetes. That’s not true. Even if your blood sugar isn’t high, you can still have insulin resistance. I actually see insulin resistance commonly in people who don’t have high blood sugar levels or high A1c.
Most of my autoimmune patients have normal A1c and fasting glucose but their insulin is high. Insulin can be high for many years before the A1c or glucose start to creep into the prediabetic or diabetic state. Taking a proactive approach to recognizing and controlling insulin resistance can prevent many chronic diseases.
What Is Reactive Hypoglycemia?
Another thing I see often is a non-diabetic person whose blood sugar goes too low. They get a pattern called reactive hypoglycemia. Their blood sugar is going up and down. When blood sugar crashes, it causes a rebound effect in the body. A safety mechanism kicks in that causes the liver to release glucose into the blood stream to bring the blood sugar back up. And then the surge in blood sugar will trigger an insulin response.
That’s why people who get low blood sugar can still develop insulin resistance: their blood sugar is not staying stable over time. Reactive hypoglycemia often gets overlooked, because it’s assumed that if you’re not diabetic you won’t have insulin problems.
Insulin Resistance Symptoms
When should you suspect that you have insulin resistance? Here are some red flags that point strongly to high insulin levels:
• Autoimmune joint pain
• Brain fog
• Low energy and fatigue
• Belly fat
• Hair loss
• High blood pressure
• High cholesterol
• Sex hormone imbalances
• Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
The only way to confirm you have insulin resistance is to work with a functional medicine provider to order the right tests. I always start with fasting blood glucose, fasting insulin, hemoglobin A1c and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) tests.
The Culprit Behind Autoimmune Joint Pain
Insulin resistance can trigger the immune system in someone who has an autoimmune tendency. If an autoimmune disease patient has blood sugar and insulin spikes, it leads to inflammation, often accompanied by pain. A lot of people who have joint-related autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, notice an increase in joint pain when their blood sugar is off or their insulin is high.
Your Brain on Too Much Insulin
Insulin also affects the brain. A lot of people with insulin resistance notice brain fog and cognitive decline. Over time, insulin resistance will cause what’s being called type 3 diabetes, the effect of blood sugar and insulin on the brain. Type 3 diabetes refers to the development of early onset dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Is This Why You Can’t Lose Weight?
If you want to know how to lose belly fat the quickest, the answer is often balancing your insulin levels. Does insulin cause belly fat? You bet. Insulin resistance and belly fat go hand in hand. Insulin is a fat-storing hormone and stubborn belly fat is usually a sign of insulin resistance.
One of The Most Common Causes of Hair Loss
If a woman comes to me with hair loss, I always check her insulin. Surges of insulin could push too much of a woman’s testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT). The conversion of testosterone into too much DHT causes male pattern baldness in women. Insulin resistance is also linked to hair loss in men, for the same reasons.
How Do You Get Rid of Insulin Resistance?
I’ve found that a functional medicine approach to insulin resistance can have excellent results. If you’re wondering how to reduce insulin resistance, here are some things to consider:
Insulin Resistance Diet
With insulin resistance, a lot of times when you eat is just as important as what you eat. People who are prone to reactive hypoglycemia often can’t go longer than two or three hours without eating before their blood sugar drops and their body tries to raise it with a cortisol surge. These people need to make sure they’re eating often enough throughout the day to keep their blood sugar from dropping too low.
Of course, if you’re eating lots of high carbs, sugars, starches, and other foods that constantly spike blood sugar, and you have insulin resistance, it’s like throwing fuel on the fire. Avoiding those types of foods can retrain the insulin receptors to respond better to insulin. In medical terms, this is often known as increasing insulin sensitivity. Read my blog post on buckwheat sourdough for a good example of food that can help insulin sensitivity rather than destroy it.
Putting a physical demand on the body as with cardiovascular exercise creates a better insulin response. Exercise creates more receptors for insulin, which escorts the blood sugar into the cells where it’s needed to make energy.
Finding ways to relax is important to keep insulin levels balanced. When you’re stressed, cortisol levels skyrocket. Cortisol is a stress hormone that causes the release of more blood sugar and promotes insulin resistance.
Getting Enough Sleep
Not sleeping well will impact your blood sugar and promote insulin resistance. You may need to work with a functional medicine provider to find the cause of your sleep loss and to suggest supplements and other ways to help you sleep better.
Replenishing Key Nutrients
It’s important to resolve nutrient deficiencies that are either creating insulin resistance or exacerbating it. Certain nutrients are needed for insulin receptors to work their best. Sometimes people are low in basic nutrients like vitamin D or chromium.
Nutritional deficiencies can occur either from a poor diet or by not absorbing enough of a nutrient from foods you’re eating or supplements you’re taking. Or maybe your body is just under so much stress that your demand for the nutrients is much higher. You don’t have as much to go around.
Insulin Resistance Supplements
Certain nutrients can help with insulin receptor sensitivity. In addition to chromium, other supplements for insulin resistance include alpha-lipoic acid, berberine, and myo-inositol.
Getting at the Root Cause of Insulin Resistance
As a functional medicine provider, I can find the reason why you’re insulin resistant in the first place. Sign up for a free 15-minute discovery consultation with the Caplan Health Institute so we can start the journey to find out if insulin resistance is the cause of your health problems. If you come on board as a patient, I can order the right tests and interpret them to find the solutions that will work best for you. For example, I’ll pinpoint the appropriate insulin resistance diet for you and find out if you have reactive hypoglycemia. By putting into practice your personalized insulin resistance treatment plan, you’ll lose belly fat, clear your brain fog, control your hair loss, boost your energy, and soothe your autoimmune disease joint pain, to name just a few of the benefits.
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