You do everything “right.” Somehow, however, those stubborn extra pounds won’t leave. And worse, they seem to have shifted to your midsection. What happened to your shape?
You can be eating healthy and still struggle with weight.
For women, it’s easy to blame slowing weight loss on the hormonal shifts that come with age, but these changes are not necessarily due to menopause. Instead, insulin resistance could be the cause.
How Does Insulin Affect Your Weight?
Let’s start by looking at the role insulin plays in the body. Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas which helps your body to use glucose (sugar) from your food by converting it to energy. A healthy insulin level goes up after a meal, and goes down when your blood sugar drops. The natural fluctuation of insulin is what keeps your blood sugar in a healthy balance.
When your body’s cells are no longer able to respond to insulin properly, they become “insulin resistant”, your blood sugar levels rise higher than they should even if your pancreas is producing a lot of insulin.
Excessively high blood sugar has many harmful effects, causing damage throughout the body. So your body has a back-up plan to protect itself: it stores the extra energy by converting it to fat, often around your midsection.
This is why high blood sugar and high insulin levels make it harder to lose weight.
More Than Just a Spare Tire – Insulin’s Many Roles
It’s important to note that insulin plays a role in many body functions, so insulin resistance can affect other facets of your health in addition to giving you a spare tire.
In fact, up to 50 percent of people who are insulin resistant go on to develop life-changing diabetes or prediabetes. And insulin resistance has been linked to the development of several types of cancer, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
At the hormone level, insulin is an intricate part of many systems in the body and can affect the performance of your other hormones. For example, high insulin levels can magnify menopausal symptoms. For women who are struggling to manage hot flashes, mood changes or other symptoms, being insulin resistant can make it even harder to regain control of their hormones.
How Do You Know If You’re Insulin Resistant?
Despite its widespread effects, insulin resistance can be difficult to diagnose. In fact, many people don’t experience any symptoms until they develop prediabetes or diabetes. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms below, your best first step should be to talk to your healthcare provider.
- Velvety dark patches of skin in your groin, neck, or armpits (a condition called acanthosis nigricans)
- Abnormal fatigue
- Cravings for sweet or salty food
- Increased hunger and thirst
- High waist-to-hip ratio (if you’re female, measure your waist and hips, then divide the number you measured for your waist by your hip measurement. If the result is higher than 0.8, your ratio is on the higher end. For men, a result greater than 1.0 is concerning.)
The Main Risk Factors (Reasons) For Insulin Resistance
Our bodies need carbohydrates. However, consuming more carbohydrates than your body can manage, can contribute to insulin resistance.
Other risk factors include:
- Excess weight
- Genetics (Some people who develop insulin resistance don’t have other risk factors. For these people, genetics are thought to be the primary factor.)
- Not getting enough sleep
- Medications, including antidepressants and steroids
- Certain medical conditions, including:
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- A history of gestational diabetes
How Can you Improve Insulin Resistance Naturally?
The good news is that lifestyle changes can dramatically improve the balance of insulin in your body, and also have a good impact on other hormones – particularly the hormones that cause many menopausal symptoms.
1. Take a close look at your diet.
If you are struggling with balancing insulin and blood sugar, you should aim to eliminate simple carbohydrates from your diet as much as possible. That means no sugar, white flour, or sweet drinks. Try to eliminate or at least limit alcohol as well.
An added bonus of cutting back on sweets and starchy foods is weight loss. Having too much body fat, especially around your middle, can lead to insulin resistance. Of course, this creates a vicious cycle, since as we discussed insulin resistance makes it harder to lose weight. It is important to make healthy diet changes though, as one study found that losing just five to seven percent of your body weight can improve insulin resistance.
However, don’t restrict calories too aggressively. You don’t want to stress your body, which can raise your levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. High cortisol levels can wreak havoc on your insulin and blood sugar balance. So focus on getting your energy from whole foods without starving yourself.
2. Reduce stress.
This is always easier said than done, but it’s important to keep your cortisol levels balanced. We can work together to find a stress-reduction plan that works for you.
3. Get enough sleep.
Even one night of bad sleep can negatively affect your insulin levels.
4. Get some exercise.
Many studies have linked physical activity and improved insulin levels. There’s no need to feel overwhelmed though, even moderate levels of daily activity can help. The key is avoid long periods of being extremely sedentary.
In fact, especially for middle-aged women, exercise that is too intense can raise cortisol levels, which in turn, can raise insulin levels, so getting creative with your exercise becomes more important as you get older. In addition to increasing moderate exercise, aim to increase your other daily movements. For example, park a bit further away, do the dishes by hand at the end of the evening, or even just stretch for a few minutes at home. Even little bits of activity can add up.
5. Stop smoking.
You can add “insulin resistance” to the long list of reasons not to smoke. This is another step that sounds easier than it often turns out to be. If you smoke, you don’t have have to give it up alone. We’re here to help!
Certain supplements can help as well, but making sure that you’re taking the right ones which are a good fit for you is best discussed with your natural health practitioner.
As you can see from the list above, our bodies are very intricate, and when something goes amiss in one area, the effects can be felt in many other areas. This dynamic is particularly true when it comes to middle-aged women and hormones. Although insulin resistance may not always have obvious symptoms, addressing your insulin levels will help many areas of your wellbeing.