Insulin- Beyond Blood Sugar
The hormone insulin is essential to many vital functions in the body. Synthesized in the pancreas, insulin is largely known for its role in the maintenance of blood sugar. Essential for cellular energy, insulin takes sugar out of blood circulation and transports it into cells where it can provide energy. A steady supply of energy is needed for organ systems to function properly and when insulin fails to supply adequate energy disease and dysfunction can result.
Insulin and blood sugar
Chronic blood sugar dysregulation can lead to diabetes. Type II diabetes is the category of diabetes that comes from poor lifestyle choices including limited physical activity and a diet high in processed foods and sugar. Over time, perpetual high blood glucose will lead to desensitization of the insulin receptors on the tissues of the body, called insulin resistance. This leads to the inability for glucose to be taken from the peripheral blood circulation into the cell to supply energy. When cells are not provided the energy they need to function properly, dysfunction is the end result. Type I diabetes is due to a lack or deficiency of insulin production, typically due to an autoimmune process. Individuals control type I diabetes with insulin replacement therapy.
Insulin and Heart Health
Insulin resistance is considered a co-morbidity, meaning, it is commonly found with other health problems. High total cholesterol, decreased HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), increased LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), elevated blood pressure and an increase hip to waist measurement ratio are all considered co-morbidities with insulin resistance. Any one of these can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease but when combined together can almost certainly lead to heart disease and eventually irreversible damage. Another factor associated with insulin resistance is an increase in Androgens, a hormone that promotes stress and inflammation.
Elevated blood sugar levels can lead to hardening of the arteries, the vessels that bring oxygenated blood to various parts of the body, peripheral vascular disease. The extremities, hands and feet, are the last to receive this oxygenated blood, and are thereby the first to suffer in peripheral vascular disease. This is one reason diabetics are at a higher risk of amputation of hands and feet.
Insulin and brain function
Insulin can readily cross the blood brain barrier, the separation between blood circulation and the central nervous system including the brain and spinal cord. This separation exists to prevent the passage of life threatening substances, like bacteria, to the delicate tissues of the central nervous system. Areas of the central nervous system found to be the most sensitive to insulin include the hypothalamus, cerebral cortex and the cerebellum.
Located deep in the brain, the hypothalamus is referred to as the “master gland” as it functions to regulate the body’s homeostatic balance. Maintenance of body weight, body temperature, hunger signals and thirst signals are just some of the responsibilities of the hypothalamus. Sound important? I’d say so! The cerebral cortex, known as gray matter, is divided into 4 lobes. The 4 lobes of the cortex have specific functions including the ability to process and understand written and spoken language, hearing, vision, touch, smell, sight and critical thinking. The cerebellum is located at the base of the brain. The ability to maintain proper posture, balance and to coordinate movement are all regulated by the cerebellum. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the functions of the hypothalamus, cortex and cerebellum, but highlights the importance of these structures.
Insulin and skin health
Individuals with chronically high blood glucose are more susceptible to skin infections. Insulin supports proper proliferation and differentiation of skin cells and when disrupted can lead to delayed wound healing and can even lead to amputation of affected part if infection is prolonged. Correlations with blood sugar dysregulation and acne have also been made, making blood sugar maintenance a therapeutic intervention in acne treatment.
Insulin and kidney health
When blood sugar is elevated for an extended period of time due to insulin resistance or lack of insulin, irreversible damage can be done to the delicate blood vessels within the kidney. When the kidneys receive an inadequate supply of blood they begin to shut down, thereby, decreasing their ability to filter wastes from the blood. Without kidney filtration the body will become toxic and will inevitably require dialysis, a process that simulates kidney filtration to remove wastes, excess salt and water.
Insulin and Liver health
The liver acts as a large filter for the blood where chemicals and toxins are metabolized and excreted. In addition to aiding in the digestion of fat soluble vitamins like A,D,E and K, the liver synthesizes bile, needed for the digestion of fats. In the liver, insulin supports function by dampening inflammatory processes and preserving cellular integrity. Insulin also promotes liver storage of glucose in the form of glycogen for use later as a reserve energy source.
There is much more than meets the eye when it comes to the many roles insulin plays in the body. What is clear is the damage that can be done when the body becomes insulin resistant. Preventing insulin resistance and blood sugar dysregulation is the most efficient way to abate irreversible damage to the several organ systems that rely on insulin for proper functioning. There are simple blood tests that can be done to assess your risk for insulin resistance. Talk with your physician about your risk and what you can do to prevent insulin resistance and other co-morbidities.
Dr. Ashley Burkman is a board certified naturopathic physicians at Connecticut Natural Health Specialists, LLC. She is accepting new patients for her family practice in Manchester, Connecticut. To schedule an appointment, please call (860)533-0179.