Is a Hormone Imbalance Increasing Your Risk for Type 2 Diabetes?
Diabetes and insulin resistance affect over 30 million Americans. Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90-95% of all diabetes cases can usually be prevented (or at least controlled) through proper diet, regular exercise and by maintaining a healthy weight.
Although there is no direct cause of type 2 diabetes, recent studies show that there may be a connection between our hormones and insulin resistance which can lead to the disease.
The Purpose of Insulin
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas to regulate blood sugar. Its job is to capture any sugar that enters the body and then pass it to the liver to store as energy.
With Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas cannot produce insulin at all. A person with Type 1 requires insulin, usually several times a day, to control sugar before it enters the bloodstream which can be deadly. Type 1, or insulin-dependent diabetes used to be called juvenile-onset as it generally develops in children, but it can happen at any age. However, Type 1 accounts for only 5-10% of all cases of diabetes.
The more common occurrence of diabetes is type 2, or non-insulin dependent diabetes. The cells in the pancreas either can’t produce enough insulin to counteract the amount of sugar or the cells that carry insulin through the bloodstream no longer respond to insulin and results in insulin resistance.
What that means is that your pancreas may be producing enough insulin, but your body isn’t responding to it correctly and your pancreas must overwork to produce more and more insulin. As the body becomes resistant to the insulin, blood sugar levels become too high and can develop into type 2 diabetes, as well as heart disease and even stroke. Type 2 used to be called “adult-onset diabetes,” but more and more young people are developing the disease as the obesity crisis increases in children.
What Causes Insulin Resistance?
A correctly functioning pancreas will produce insulin in response to any sugar that enters the bloodstream from food. This includes all simple carbohydrates like processed grains (bread, cakes, white rice). If you consume too much sugar, your pancreas has to work harder and eventually, it won’t be able to keep up.
There is no exact rule for how much is too much, but our bodies were never meant to consume the amount of sugar that is in the typical American diet. Sugary cereals and excessive sweet drinks like sodas have contributed to obesity in both children and adults which has increased the number of cases of type 2 diabetes.
What Does This Have to Do with Hormones?
Besides insulin, our bodies produce and secrete dozens of hormones which are the chemical receptors that tell certain organs like your heart, kidneys, ovaries, and pancreas, how to function. Hormones range from sex and reproductive to those that control digestion, mood, stress, and metabolism. But, many of these hormones also work with insulin to control blood sugar, and when one or more become unbalanced, we are at higher risk for insulin resistance.
We’ll look at 10 important hormones, their primary functions, and how they interact with blood sugar. And, what happens when they become unbalanced.
Thyroid – The thyroid gland produces two hormones which mainly control metabolism, body weight and temperature, and energy levels.
Low thyroid, or hypothyroidism, lowers your insulin sensitivity and may cause insulin resistance. Also, those with hypothyroidism tend to have weight issues and that is a risk for developing type2 diabetes.
Glucagon does the opposite of insulin. It releases sugar into the bloodstream and keeps it from becoming too low. Glucagon is released by the alpha cells of the pancreas in between meals and while we sleep and then delivers it to the liver for storage to be utilized as needed to regulate blood sugar levels. Glucagon also stores fat to be used for energy when needed. However, too much glucagon production will release additional insulin which can eventually lead to insulin resistance.
GLP-1, GIP, and Amylin – These three hormones are produced in response to sugar intake and signal the pancreas to produce more insulin. Amylin is secreted with insulin from the pancreas, while GLP-1 and GIP are both produced from the small intestine but act similarly to control glucagon and blood sugar spikes.
They work directly with each other to regulate blood sugar. Any imbalance can affect how your body reacts to insulin and increase your risk of becoming insulin resistant.
Epinephrine also called adrenaline, is secreted from the adrenal glands. It’s the fight or flight hormone that’s activated when there is a threat. This is the hormone that makes us run when being chased or slam on our brakes when the car in front of us suddenly stops. It also causes anxiety in perceived dangers. But epinephrine also increases sugar metabolism by telling the liver and kidneys to produce more sugar in response to the insulin.
Cortisol – Cortisol is the stress hormone and also comes from the adrenal glands. It’s released whenever our bodies become anxious. Cortisol controls the amount of insulin that reaches fat and muscle cells and encourages the liver to produce more glucose.
When our bodies are in a constant state of stress or anxiety, high cortisol and epinephrine levels can cause insulin resistance.
Leptin – Produced by fat cells, Leptin is the hormone that tells you when you’ve eaten enough food. It regulates energy and fat storage. Excessive sugar and refined carbs interrupt the signal to your brain telling your that you’re full, and you may end up eating more than you should.
When you become leptin resistant, your body thinks it’s starving even after you’ve eaten. And, because your body can only process so much sugar, it stores the rest as fat. Obesity is directly related to leptin, and insulin and leptin-resistance tend to coincide.
Growth Hormone – is produced from the pituitary gland during puberty and increases during growth spurts. It also regenerates cells throughout our lives. Low or high levels of growth hormone can cause insulin resistance.
Estrogen is a female sex hormone, secreted mainly from the ovaries, whose main purpose is regulating the reproductive system. Estrogen also optimizes insulin activity.
Pre-menopausal women produce estrogen which controls insulin resistance. However, as you age and enter menopause, estrogen levels decrease. Low estrogen has been linked to insulin resistance, which is why post-menopausal women tend to gain weight, especially in their mid-section, and have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Progesterone is the other female sex hormone that thickens your uterine wall to prepare for pregnancy. Progesterone levels drop dramatically each month if the egg isn’t fertilized and results in menstruation.
Low progesterone levels which can go along with estrogen dominance are headaches, mood swings, low sex drive, and irregular periods. It can also lead to reproductive problems including polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) which is directly connected to insulin resistance.
Testosterone – Although it is primarily the male sex hormone, women also have testosterone. It’s what helps with muscle mass, bone strength, and energy. It also gives women their sex drive and sexual pleasure. Low testosterone causes not only a decreased sex drive, but it may also cause muscle loss, weight gain, and osteoporosis.
Whenever there’s an increase in sugar, it decreases the free testosterone levels which can lead to estrogen dominance which may lead to insulin resistance.
Since testosterone is produced in the ovaries, women who’ve had a hysterectomy tend to have low testosterone.
Hormones Work Best in Harmony
There is a direct connection between blood sugar regulation, insulin and the other hormones we produce. When one or more of your hormones becomes unbalanced, it can affect how your body reacts to glucose and insulin, increasing your risk of developing insulin resistance.
Excess sugar, including simple carbohydrates, causes an imbalance in many of our body’s hormones, including insulin and estrogen, leading to insulin resistance that can lead to many healthy problems including weight gain and, eventually, heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. Hormone imbalance can surface in the form of mood swings, depression, skin problems, weight gain, fatigue, trouble concentrating, and infertility.
If you think you may have a hormone imbalance, or symptoms of insulin resistance, talk to your doctor. They may prescribe hormone treatments along with a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise. Muscles react to physical activity by becoming more sensitive to insulin, which can counteract insulin resistance.
Cutting out sugar and processed foods will help slow down and can even reverse insulin resistance before it become diabetes and will also help you maintain a healthy hormonal balance.