Insulin resistance is an important concept to understand always, but even more so in your 40s as your body becomes more prone to it.
Insulin resistance is a situation in which the body’s cells do not respond properly to insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels. It is one of the main risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes, as well as other metabolic disorders such as obesity, high cholesterol, high triglycerides and high blood pressure.
As the female body moves through perimenopause it becomes better at storing fat and insulin resistance is one of the underlying causes of this. You can read more about why we gain weight in our 40s here in a previous blog.
If you’re gaining weight without changing your diet, or you’re suffering with common perimenopause symptoms such as low energy, brain fog, low mood, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, headaches, trouble sleeping and aching joints, you need to consider that you may have elevated levels of insulin.
In addition to blood sugar swings, which drain your energy and focus, store more belly fat, upset your mood, mess with your sleep, fuzz your brain and leave you with constant sugar cravings – chronically elevated insulin is a significant stress on the body and a major health risk.
What is insulin resistance and how does it occur?
Insulin is released from your pancreas into your bloodstream in response to eating, particularly any and all carbohydrates. Carbohydrates is a large umbrella of foods ranging from broccoli, lentils and carrots to white wraps, crisps and cakes. Carbohydrate foods break down into glucose (sugar), which enters the bloodstream.
Insulin’s job is to shuttle the glucose into your cells (body and brain) where it is used for energy, plus stored in the cells of your liver and muscles for use later, a storage form of glucose known as glycogen.
Once your cells have taken what they need, any leftover glucose is stored in your fat cells as body fat, also known as adipose tissue, a lot of which is stored around the middle.
Insulin resistance occurs when your cells become less sensitive or receptive to insulin, which starts to happen when there is chronically too much glucose coming in. After a while, your cells struggle to keep up and start to ‘ignore’ insulin’s request to take in glucose, resulting in glucose hanging around in the bloodstream. This causes the pancreas to secrete more insulin in response to there still being sugar in the bloodstream. The opposite of this is ‘insulin sensitivity’, which is when your cells remain receptive or ‘sensitive’ to insulin’s request to allow glucose into the cell.
Having insulin resistant cells means less energy for the body and brain because the glucose cannot get inside the cell and fuel your mitochondria, small structures found in the fluid that surrounds the cell nucleus in every cell, that produce energy. Less fuel entering your brain cells will increase symptoms such as brain fog, blank mind and memory issues, headaches and fatigue.
Insulin resistance is also referred to as Metabolic Syndrome, pre-diabetes or hyperinsulinemia, and can have a significant impact on female hormone issues including PMS, PCOS, endometriosis, fertility and can drive symptoms in perimenopause and the transition into menopause.
It is one of the biggest contributing factors to a more challenging experience of perimenopause – encouraging hot flashes, night sweats, weight gain and belly fat, migraines, a foggy brain, low energy and fatigue, and sleep, mood and cognition issues.
The quickest way to insulin resistant cells is a diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and processed foods, aka the standard Western diet. Add to this, low protein, low fat, low fibre, poor sleep and chronic stress and you’ve got the perfect recipe for blood sugar imbalances and elevated insulin.
Women in perimenopause and postmenopause are more prone to insulin resistance, which is due to metabolic changes related to adrenal, thyroid and sex hormone fluctuations (particularly oestrogen) and the subsequent decreased tolerance of carbohydrates.
Chronic stress and insulin resistance
Even if you’re eating the best blood sugar balancing diet in the world, you can still be at risk of insulin resistance. That’s because stress can cause insulin resistance on its own!
As part of your body’s “fight or flight” stress response, cortisol provides the body with glucose (to help it to flight or flee) by way of a process called gluconeogenesis, which is where proteins in the liver are turned into glucose.
In addition to directly putting sugar into the bloodstream, cortisol can prevent insulin from doing its important job of transporting glucose into cells – leading to insulin resistance.
Balancing your stress hormones is essential to maintaining good blood sugar balance. Make self care and stress management non-negotiable.
In your 40s (and forevermore), it’s even more important to be managing chronic stress and eating a blood sugar balancing diet.
What exactly is a blood sugar balancing diet?
Simply put, a blood sugar balancing diet is a diet where every meal contains an optimal amount of protein with a small amount of slow-releasing, fibre-rich carbohydrates, some healthy fats, and plenty of colourful vegetables. Ideally 3 balanced meals spread out evenly across a maximum 12 hour and minimum 8 hour period.
Protein is the number one nutrient for good regulation of blood sugar levels. It supports a much slower release of glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream from any and all carbohydrate foods. This helps to keep blood sugar spikes within the healthy range, keeping your cells SENSITIVE to insulin, which is the opposite of insulin RESISTANCE.
Protein helps you feel fuller for longer and keeps cravings at bay. It’s the number one way to reduce your reliance on high carb meals and snacks and sugary foods. Always aim for a minimum of 30g of pure protein with all 3 meals.
Other ways to prevent or reverse insulin resistance:
Strength training, AKA lifting, pushing and pulling weights, increases the efficiency of glucose uptake by your cells. The more muscle you have the more glucose your cells can store, which keeps insulin levels under control, improving and maintaining insulin sensitivity.
Your daily sleep – wake cycle (circadian rhythm) is significantly linked to your ability to manage insulin levels and keeping your cells sensitive to insulin. A body clock that’s out of whack can increase the likelihood of insulin resistance. The best way to regulate your body clock (and improve sleep!) is to start the day with daylight within an hour of waking and having an evening wind down routine where the lights are kept very dim and then pure darkness closer to bedtime. This is so that your brain gets the right signals and the right hormones, such as serotonin and melatonin, are secreted at the right times.
There are certain nutrients that can be very supportive of good blood sugar management and thus insulin sensitivity, these include:
- Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA & DHA)
- B vitamins (particularly B3, B6 and biotin)
- Alpha Lipoic Acid
If you are concerned about or would just like to check your blood sugar health you can start by asking your GP for a blood test for HbA1c levels. Other helpful markers to test for include fasting glucose and fasting insulin or an oral glucose tolerance test.
You could track your blood sugar levels for a few days or a week to check your fasted glucose result and to see how you respond to your diet and lifestyle habits.This can be done using a finger prick device with a simple blood glucose monitor or a continuous glucose monitor (CGM).
If you would like support with any of this you can explore ways to work with me here.