Insulin: is this essential hormone your friend or your foe?

Insulin: is this essential hormone your friend or your foe?

The jury may be out on whether insulin is a friend or a foe. If you are diabetic, however, or know someone with diabetes, chances are you will know the importance of insulin.

It’s hard to believe that until insulin was discovered 100 years ago, those with diabetes had little chance of surviving more than six months. But all of us need this precious hormone, even those who are not diabetic.

Every tiny cell in the body has to have sugar for energy, and insulin, which is made in the pancreas, is what helps to regulate the level of blood sugar in each of those cells. You can think of it as a “key” that unlocks the cell gates and lets blood sugar in.

Insulin is the only hormone that can prevent hyperglycemia (too much sugar in your blood) or the equally dangerous hypoglycemia (extremely low glucose).

When you are healthy, the insulin miraculously works quietly in the background to let the body’s fat, muscles and liver know when they must store or release blood sugar for later use, even if you haven’t eaten for a while.

Muscles for example, use up the stored sugar when you exercise, and then they top up the “energy bank” later by taking sugar out of the body. If you take in more sugar than you use, then insulin helps to store it, which is why too much sugar – or calories – leads to weight gain.

However, if you are insulin resistant, or diabetic, this finely tuned system no longer works.

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And, even a healthy person can produce too much insulin if a lot of blood sugar suddenly enters the bloodstream. If you’ve overindulged on rich, fatty or sweet food, for example, this alerts the pancreas to start working overtime.

To counter the sugar-rush, the pancreas pumps out more insulin. And, when you do this too often, the cells start to ignore the signal and become insulin resistant. This is when you may develop type 2 diabetes, and that comes with a host of health concerns.

Apart from the complications of the disease itself, diabetes puts you at a higher risk for heart disease and certain cancers.

It’s important to be aware that too much insulin is just as dangerous as too little as it can lower the blood sugar to the extent that you become hypoglycemic. This may start with a feeling of extreme tiredness, then develop into dizziness, confusion and even a coma or seizures.

In certain obesity-associated cancers, too much insulin can be like throwing gas on a fire. This sensitive hormone may therefore start as a friend and turn into a foe. 

Don’t wait until you’re diagnosed with insulin resistance or, even worse, diabetes before you take action to look after your health.

Keeping insulin in balance

How then do you keep your insulin levels in balance?

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There are several ways to tackle this, and many are lifestyle related: Keeping a healthy weight, avoiding stress and getting enough sleep are changes which really do help although you may still need medication.

The good news is that you should be able to manage your insulin levels yourself – but only if you know what you are looking for. This is why it is so vital to check your blood sugar levels regularly.

It is extremely important to know your numbers, and your health care provider can pick up potential problems through regular cholesterol and blood sugar tests – try to do these annually.

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