What is insulin?
Before we dive into the insulin resistance and PCOS connection, let’s begin with what the hormone, insulin, does in our bodies. Insulin is an anabolic hormone secreted by the pancreas that helps your body store glucose, protein, and fat. Without insulin, your muscles and liver cannot absorb glucose, it’s harder to build muscle mass, and you can’t store fat. As you can tell, insulin is a very important hormone.
How does insulin influence blood glucose levels?
One of the main functions of insulin is to regulate blood glucose levels. When we consume carbohydrates, our body breaks them down into sugars which increases our blood glucose levels. Our pancreas detects the rise in blood glucose and releases insulin. Insulin travels through our blood to attach to receptors on cells and this tells the cells to let the glucose in. Once the glucose enters our cells, our blood glucose levels decrease.
What is insulin resistance?
Insulin resistance is when our cells become resistant to the actions of insulin. Insulin resistance occurs when:
- Insulin doesn’t attach to the cell receptors as it’s supposed to OR
- Insulin attaches to the cell receptors but for some reason, the cells don’t allow the glucose to enter
While the exact cause of insulin resistance is unknown, we do know that insulin resistance can occur as a result of genetic, environmental, dietary, and lifestyle factors.
How do I know if I have it?
If you’re wondering if you are experiencing insulin resistance, the first thing to do is check for any signs and symptoms of insulin resistance. Below are common signs and symptoms:
- Feeling fatigued and brain fogged
- Acanthosis Nigricans: dark patches of skin that typically form on the groin, neck, armpit, and in the folds of skin
- Skin tags
- Strong carbohydrate cravings or constant hunger
- Rapid weight gain
- High androgen levels leading to hair loss, hirsutism, and/or acne
If any of these signs and symptoms stand out to you, it’s important to talk to your doctor to get labs done to confirm if you have insulin resistance or not.
Labs to Know
There are many different labs your doctor can order but the most important labs to get done for insulin resistance are:
- Fasting Insulin
- Fasting Blood Glucose
- Hemoglobin A1c
- 2-hour oral glucose tolerance test
Both fasting insulin and fasting blood glucose need to be done when you have fasted overnight so it would be best to make an appointment in the morning as soon as you can so you’re not going without food for a while.
Hemoglobin A1c is a test that looks at your long-term blood glucose control (last 3 months). This is important because our fasting blood glucose and fasting insulin are subject to change daily based on what we’ve been eating and doing the last few days. It’s still important to get all labs drawn.
A 2-hour oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) is when you consume a high sugar drink and test your blood glucose at certain times after consumption. This test is looking at insulin sensitivity by testing how well your body can absorb the sugar from the drink within a certain amount of time.
The insulin resistance and PCOS connection
If you have PCOS or suspect you have PCOS, you’ve probably heard about insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a hallmark feature in near 70% of individuals with PCOS.
When insulin levels are high like in insulin-resistant individuals, this leads to:
- Ovaries and adrenals overproducing androgens, like testosterone
- Your liver to underproduce sex-hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) which is supposed to bind to testosterone and remove from the blood
- Suppression of follicle stimulating hormones (FSH) and elevation of luteinizing hormone (LH), which may interfere with follicle development
- More inflammation in the body possibly leading to more androgen synthesis
As you can see, addressing insulin resistance is one of the most important steps in managing PCOS.
If you’re ready to address insulin resistance and learn how to manage your PCOS symptoms, consider applying for my 1:1 Peace with PCOS Academy. You can schedule a free 30-minute phone call to discuss whether my program is the right fit for you.
How does nutrition affect insulin resistance?
Nutrition plays a huge role in insulin resistance. Our diet and eating behaviors directly affect blood glucose levels which lead to insulin secretion. Some dietary factors that affect insulin secretion and sensitivity:
- The amount and type of carbohydrates, protein, and fat
- How we pair our macronutrients
- Vitamins and minerals in our food
- When, how, and why we eat the foods we do
How does lifestyle make a difference?
In addition to diet and eating behaviors, there are many lifestyle factors that affect blood sugar and insulin. Here are some listed below:
- Environmental factors
- Fad dieting/weight cycling
- And so much more!
How do I get started on reducing insulin resistance?
As a registered dietitian, I am trained in understanding each variable that affects blood sugar and insulin resistance. If you’re wanting to manage your PCOS symptoms without diets, consider joining my 1:1 Peace with PCOS Academy. You can schedule your free 30-minute phone call to discuss if my program is the right fit for you!