As boomers, we’re used to having our blood glucose levels measured during our annual physicals. After all, our risk for developing diabetes increases with age. Many of us now know our A1C levels as well as our cholesterol, iron and calcium levels.
Also, if you’re the one in three Americans that have been diagnosed with pre-diabetes – which means you have high glucose levels but not ‘high enough’ to be diabetic – you probably are getting your blood glucose tested more frequently.
Given that diabetes and pre-diabetes now affect approximately one half of the U.S. population, it makes complete sense to ensure your annual physical includes testing your A1C and blood glucose levels.
These are the ‘standards’ when it comes to diagnosing pre-diabetes and diabetes. A fasting blood glucose level below 100 is considered ‘normal’ while a reading of between 100 and 125 is considered pre-diabetes. From 126 up, you are considered diabetic.
But Don’t Forget Insulin – Glucose’s Dance Partner
As you probably know, insulin is the hormone secreted by your pancreas – a small organ behind your stomach. It is insulin’s job to tell the cells in your body how to utilize the glucose circulating in your blood so that they could function properly.
Without insulin, your cells would not get the fuel they need and they would literally starve to death.
This intricate dance between insulin and blood glucose levels works extremely well and under a wide variety of physical conditions and circumstances. You eat, blood glucose starts to rise, insulin arrives to bring it back down to normal, and the dance starts again with your next meal.
Over time, however, and especially if you are overweight, have a poor diet and/or don’t exercise enough, your cells may develop a tolerance to insulin and stop responding as well as they used to.
When this happens, your pancreas needs to produce and release increasing amounts of insulin to get the same effect of lowering your blood glucose levels.
After a while, the amount of insulin needed to overcome this tolerance is more than your pancreas can manufacture. Your glucose levels start to creep up, and once they cross the 100-level threshold, you may be diagnosed with pre-diabetes.
Long before you reach the point where your blood glucose levels rise to pre-diabetes or diabetes thresholds, your insulin levels had begun to rise. According to some researchers, this might be happening decades before diagnosis!
One reason why this is possible is because your pancreas is so good at its job that you can continue to get normal blood glucose and A1C readings while your insulin tolerance continues to increase.
If you or your healthcare provider are meticulous about tracking your lab results year-over-year, you will start to notice your A1C and blood glucose increasing, but usually, this is not enough to ‘throw a warning flag.’
Actually, that is the problem with many diagnostic tests – they really can’t reveal much until the disease or an immediate precursor is detectable.
In this case, as long as your glucose ‘numbers’ are in the normal range, you, and probably even your healthcare provider, will assume you’re fine. That’s why it’s important to talk with your doctor about testing your insulin levels as well.
What Causes Insulin Tolerance?
While genetic and other factors such as chronic diseases can increase insulin tolerance, the biggest culprit, as with diabetes, is being overweight.
Research is showing that excess body weight may induce or aggravate insulin resistance by causing an imbalance in certain hormones as well as defects in the pancreatic cells that are responsible for producing insulin. This is especially true if you have excess fat around the waist.
Another contributor to developing insulin tolerance is the lack of exercise. The reason for this is that the muscles need and use more glucose than the other organs and tissues in your body.
When your metabolism is working as it should, muscles use their stored glucose and then take some more from your bloodstream. This ‘supply and demand’ relationship helps keep your glucose levels in balance.
Some studies have also shown that exercise also makes muscles more sensitive to insulin, and thus it is easier for them to absorb the needed glucose without the help of insulin.
There are other causes as well, including your ethnicity, getting older, genetic make-up, some medications and whether you get enough natural sleep.
If you need another reason to get your mineral levels checked, research also shows that magnesium plays a vital role in helping insulin do its job. So, in addition to its other health benefits, having adequate magnesium levels can also reduce the chances of becoming insulin tolerant.
Dangers of Insulin Tolerance
High insulin levels in your bloodstream, in addition to being a precursor to pre-diabetes, may also increase your risk for diseases like heart attack, cancer, gout, fatty liver and high blood pressure.
You Can Reverse Insulin Tolerance
The good news is that research continues to show that insulin tolerance can be halted and, in many cases, even reversed. This can be achieved by addressing the two things most responsible for causing the tolerance in the first place.
Here are some suggestions you should consider:
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Talk with your healthcare provider about what your ideal weight should be before starting any kind of weight loss program. Also, remember that slow, healthy weight loss is better in the long run since it will help you keep to your program and stay at your ideal weight.
Improve Your Diet
Look for and select whole, unprocessed foods instead of high processed and/or prepared foods. Foods that have a lot of simple carbohydrates that digest quickly tend to spike your insulin levels and put additional stress on your pancreas.
Also, avoid saturated fats and opt for unsaturated fats and high-fiber foods. Consider drinking green tea and adding vinegar, nuts and spices to your diet.
Cook more at home so that you have more control over the food you’re eating. And as an added bonus, you can invite family and friends over to cook to turn healthy eating into a social occasion!
You don’t need to start running marathons or power lifting at the gym. A brisk walk for 30 minutes a day has been shown to have enormous benefits for reducing glucose levels and increasing insulin sensitivity.
Here is the really good news: There is overwhelming evidence that making lifestyle changes to combat insulin tolerance is very effective in those 60 and older!
What is your experience with insulin tolerance or pre-diabetes? Do you regularly have your insulin tested along with your A1C and blood glucose? If you have high insulin, have you made any lifestyle changes? Have they made a difference for you? Tell us about it. Please join the conversation.