• Caitanya Chandra dasa

Health: Insulin resistance, obesity and inflammation

Of all the different health problems we face nowadays, three are especially significant. In fact, most other health conditions are caused or accentuated by these three. By solving these three problems we can make our body much less susceptible to all kinds of diseases, from flu to cancer. Incidentally, all three of them are connected with our eating habits.

The first is a condition called insulin resistance. Insulin is an essential hormone for the body. It allows us to use glucose, which is the basic fuel for all the cells in the body. Incapacity of producing insulin is called type 1 diabetes, a condition when the body loses the ability to control the levels of glucose in the blood and of using it as a fuel, resulting in serious problems.

Every time we eat foods rich in carbohydrates, the digestive system breaks the starches in the food and dumps the resulting glucose in the bloodstream. As a response, the pancreas secretes insulin, which signals to all cells in the body that they should absorb this glucose and replenish their reserves. As the cells pick up the glucose, the levels in the blood normalize, at least until the next meal, when the process repeats itself. Free glucose circulating in the blood is highly toxic, therefore everything needs to work like a clock, so the glucose levels don't raise so much.

To eat carbohydrates is a normal process. Human beings have been eating grains, fruits, roots and other foods rich in carbohydrates since the beginning of time. The problem is that our modern diets are too rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars (for example, imagine yourself eating a cake, which is basically a combination of white flour, oil and sugar). This type of carbohydrates is composed of simple starches that are digested very quickly. The resulting glucose inundates the blood, provoking an equally strong insulin response. This creates a roller coaster effect, where the glucose in the blood rises too fast, and then (due to the strong insulin response) drops too low. This makes one feel hungry, which makes him repeat the process, eating again after a few hours. As this repeats, the cells in the body stop responding to the insulin, forcing the pancreas to secrete higher and higher doses to get the same level of response from the cells. It’s just like if the cells would start to become deaf and the pancreas would be forced to scream higher and higher to get their attention.

This resistance from the part of the cells and the resulting higher levels of insulin leads to a condition called insulin resistance, in which the body tries to compensate the resistance from the cells by pumping more insulin. One can then end up with levels of insulin up to four or five times higher than normal and still have high blood sugar, a combination that results in serious problems.

Insulin is such a dominant hormone that it will block other important hormones (such as growth hormone) resulting in a lot of abdominal fat and less muscle. Over time, this condition can lead to type 2 diabetes, a very debilitating disease.

The difference between type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes is that in the first the body is not capable of producing sufficient insulin, and in the second the insulin production is normal, but the cells stop responding to normal levels of insulin, forcing the pancreas to produce much larger doses to compensate. In short, type 1 diabetes is caused by lack of insulin, and type 2 diabetes by excess of insulin due to the resistance of the cells.

It happens that most people that adopt a diet rich in refined carbohydrates, end up developing insulin resistance to a higher or lesser degree. According to recent research (‘Insulin Resistance: Insulin Action and its Disturbances in Disease’ by Sudhesh Kumar and Stephen O'Rahilly), insulin resistance is the cause of most health problems, including:

- Metabolic syndrome

- High blood pressure

- High Cholesterol

- High Triglycerides

- Fatty liver

- Obesity

- Diabetes

- Inflammatory conditions (artrits, tendinites, autoimmune reactions, hormonal problems)

- Contributes to heart problems, dementia, problems in the eyes, etc.

- Lack of concentration, brain fog, bad memory

In other words, insulin resistance is actually a factor behind the development of most chronic diseases. There is strong evidence that insulin resistance is a significant factor even in infections of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus), putting one in much greater risk if developing a serious (and possibly fatal) infection.

A research from the TGHRI (Diabetes 2015 Jun; 64(6): 1886-1897. points out the existence of an important link between chronic inflammation, poor immune responses, and insulin resistance. It happens that insulin is an important hormone for the immune system. The T-cells (just like all other cells from the body) can become insulin resistant, and when this happens, they ignore the signals from the body when there is an infection. Insulin resistance almost always comes together with high blood sugar, which is another factor that suppresses the immune system. The combination of these two factors results in a sluggish immune system that undermines the capacity of the body to fight disease.

In the case of the coronavirus, it allows the virus to reproduce unchecked for longer, leading to a much higher count of the virus in the organism before the body can ramp-up the production of antibodies and mount a counterattack. This increases the risk of a severe infection with life-threatening symptoms.

Insulin resistance is caused by a combination of a diet rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars, and the habit of eating frequently. Unfortunately, most people nowadays have insulin resistance to a major or minor degree. If you crave for sweets or carbohydrates and start to have difficulty concentrating, mood swings or dizziness after a few hours without eating, you probably have it to some extent.

Apart from the effects on the immune system, another of the major consequences of insulin resistance is weight gain, which may lead to obesity over time. One thing actually leads to the other. The main causes of insulin resistance are sugar and refined carbohydrates. Every time we eat a meal rich in foods like cakes, breads, or sweets, the glucose in the blood rises quickly, forcing the body to respond by releasing a great deal of insulin. The insulin makes the glucose be quickly stored as fat in the cells (instead of being converted into energy), and thus reduces the blood sugar. The consequence of low blood sugar is that we feel hungry or dizzy again after a short time, tending to repeat the dose. Every time the cycle repeats, we gain a little bit of fat and we make the cells of our body more resistant to the insulin. Over time, we start to accumulate more and more fat (which may lead to obesity), and the pancreas is forced to release more and more insulin to compensate for the resistance of the cells (leading to insulin resistance). As we can see, these two problems frequently walk together.

It's important to understand that obesity is not genetic, nor is it necessarily caused by a lack of willpower. Rather, it's caused by one’s eating habits. The same person that can gain weight very easily on a diet of refined carbohydrates and sugar, can lose weight equally quickly on a healthier diet. There are some people that gain weight easier than others, but any person can maintain an ideal weight under the correct diet.

One of the main pillars of a good diet is to reduce (or completely avoid) refined carbohydrates. Once this is done, problems like insulin resistance and obesity are also automatically treated. We are going to see more about that in the following articles.

Finally, we have the problem of inflammation. Actually, inflammation is a natural function of the body that increases the blood flow on damaged areas, facilitating the healing process. Inflammation is a problem when it becomes chronic.

Chronic inflammation is especially connected with painful conditions, like tendinitis, artritis, etc. and it can also aggravate circulatory problems in the arteries, heart and brain, and it can even cause or contribute to the appearance of certain types of cancer. Just like insulin resistance, chronic inflammation can cause many different health problems. Many of these conditions are actually a combined result of both.

It happens that just as in the case of insulin resistance, the main cause of chronic inflammation is a bad diet: refined carbohydrates are also highly inflammatory. There is also another factor, which we are going to discuss in more detail a little later: refined vegetable oils (like sunflower, canola, corn and soy oils). These oils are too rich in omega-6 fats, as well as other inflammatory substances. Their regular consumption is also an important factor that leads to inflammation, especially considering that they are normally combined with refined carbohydrates in many of the preparations we eat on a daily basis.

When one is young, the body can take a lot of abuse. We may eat cake with lassi during breakfast, puris with fried potatoes at lunch, and pizza for dinner (with a few sweets and snacks in between), and still be able to function. However, as we get older, the body becomes much more sensitive. It comes to a point (for most people it is around their 40’s) where we have to choose between cakes, pizzas and fried samosas and their health. The ones who choose wisely may be able to remain active, doing different services for 20, 30 or even 40 years more. Others often have to stop their services due to health issues. One may not necessarily die earlier because of a bad diet, but it will greatly decrease his vitality and energy, causing all kinds of premature health problems that may be very difficult to treat. We fear invalidity, pain and suffering in old age, and to have a better diet is the most sure measure we can take to avoid that.