Hormones are like phone lines, sending signals across large distances. What happens when your signal is too weak? It’s like a phone line being down – things soon start to go haywire!
One of the most prevalent hormonal imbalances I come across in my clinic is caused by insulin. Insulin imbalances ultimately result in insulin resistance and this has a ripple effect on other hormones and systems.
What is insulin resistance?
Insulin is a hormone produced by the beta cells of the pancreas. The insulin is released into the blood stream and travels throughout the body. Most of the actions of insulin are directed at the control and breakdown of carbohydrates (sugars and starches), lipids (fats), and proteins.
One of the key actions of insulin is to cause the cells of the body, particularly the muscle and fat cells, to remove and use glucose from the blood. It does this by binding to insulin receptors on the surface of the cells. When we consume too much glucose, mainly in the form of refined and processed carbohydrates, our blood stream is literally flooded with glucose and in a desperate attempt to remove this glucose and transfer it into energy, our pancreas secretes excessively high amounts of insulin. It is important to note that out of all the three major food groups — protein, carbohydrates and fats — carbohydrates elicit the largest insulin response. You can think of it as insulin ‘knocking’ on the doors of muscle and fat cells. The cells hear the knock, open up and let glucose in to be used by the cell.
With long-term insulin resistance due to continually excessively high blood sugar levels, the muscles don’t hear the knock as they are resistant and so the pancreas makes more insulin, which increases the level of insulin in the blood and causes a louder knock.
The resistance of the cells continues to increase over time. As long as the pancreas is able to produce enough insulin to overcome this resistance, blood glucose levels remain normal. When the pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin, the blood glucose levels begin to rise. This happens initially after meals when glucose levels are at their highest and more insulin is needed but eventually in the fasting state too. At this point, Type 2 diabetes is present. However, the spectrum of insulin resistance is broad and anywhere along the continuum will also be impacting on other hormones too — nothing happens in isolation.
Reproductive abnormalities in women
Excessive levels of insulin stimulates testosterone production. Testosterone is then converted to oestrogen, causing an excessive oestrogen state, which can lead to irregular or missed periods. The now elevated oestrogen levels disrupt and alter the ratio of luteinizing and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) resulting in too much luteinizing hormone and not enough FSH being produced. This drives further production of male hormones (androgens-testosterone). In the face of high testosterone, high oestrogen and disrupted follicle stimulating and luteinizing hormone, menstrual cycles cease.
High male hormone levels, that are produced by the ovaries as a direct result of excessively high insulin levels, can lead to excess hair growth and often acne.
Central/midriff weight gain
Where there is a degree of insulin resistance, the body increases the conversion of our protein stores in the form of amino acids e.g. muscle, into glucose. This alerts another hormone from the pancreas called glucagon which exerts its main action on liver cells — stimulating the process gluconeogenesis. This is making new glucose from amino acids, proteins and free fatty acids from stored fats.
Fat cells in the abdomen however remain sensitive to insulin, thus causing them to take up and store more of these now increasing free fatty acids and triglycerides, leading to an ever-increasing central weight gain.
When looking at the body, nothing can be treated in isolation. We are dynamic and there is always a cause and effect result.
My tips to balance hormones
Avoid all refined carbohydrates e.g. cakes, biscuits, pastries and crisps. They are devoid of nutrients and very high in calories.
Include a palm size portion of lean protein with each main meal. Protein may help to blunt the rise in blood sugar levels caused more abruptly by carbohydrates.
Adopt a diet where the carbohydrates you eat have a low glycemic index i.e. they don’t raise your blood sugar levels too quickly or too far. The easiest way to do this is cut out white pasta, bread and grains and replace with wholegrains.
Increase your dietary fibre intake and include a minimum of five portions of different coloured vegetables every day, plus two fruits. Fibre actively increases a protein made by the liver called sex hormone binding globulin, which as the name suggests binds excess oestrogen and testosterone in the blood rendering them inactive.
Incorporate 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed into your diet a day. Flaxseed has been shown to reduce oestrogen dominance and improve testosterone metabolism.
Incorporate cinnamon into your diet — it is believed to help sensitise the cells to the action of insulin.
Exercise for thirty minutes of accumulated moderate-intensity physical activity per day.