Hormones 101

Insulin - the energy regulator

Where it is released from?

Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas, an organ that sits behind the stomach. It is released from the pancreas into the bloodstream in efforts to reach various parts of the body.

What is its main function?

Insulin’s main function is to help regulate our blood sugar levels. When we eat carbohydrates, insulin enables the body to use the sugars for energy. If we don’t use the energy, it gets stored as glucose in our muscles, fat cells and liver to use later when our bodies need it.

After we eat, our blood sugar (glucose) rises - how high depends on how much of it was carbohydrate. The more carbohydrates we eat, the higher the amount of sugar will be in our blood and too much sugar in our blood can be harmful. Sounds simple but not everybody processes insulin in the same way.  

What are the effects of imbalances in this hormone?

Without insulin, our cells are unable to use glucose as fuel and they can stop functioning properly. Insulin prevents our blood sugar levels from going too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia). When our blood sugar is too low, and we become hypoglycemic, this could be identified with symptoms such as a sudden change in mood, hunger, sweating, trembling and even losing consciousness.

Some classic symptoms of high blood sugar are, extreme thirst, weak bladder, dry mouth, lethargy and irritability.

If the cells in the pancreas responsible for producing insulin are damaged or have been destroyed, this could have major health implications - often leading to conditions such as type 1 diabetes. For those who are insulin resistant however, this means that they don’t experience the benefits of insulin's effects - the cells struggle to respond to its message of blood sugar regulation. This can also lead to serious health issues, such as type 2 diabetes.

What is its relationship to lifestyle, diet and stress?

Understandably, food plays a huge role in our insulin levels. Unless we have a disease or disorder associated with our pancreas or insulin production, most of us can manage our blood sugar levels by eating in way that keeps them regulated, such as a diet low in refined sugars, alcohol and high in fibre.

Fluctuating blood sugar levels are easily identifiable; that all too familiar high or ‘food coma’ after a sweet or carb-filled meal is associated with a rise blood sugar levels. If we eat a large amount of sugar in one go, insulin production is overstimulated (to regulate our blood sugar levels). Some time afterwards, all that insulin could then bring on hypoglycemia (often identified as the “sugar crash”). And if you’ve ever skipped a meal or done high impact exercise and felt light headed afterwards, your blood levels may have dropped considerably, also causing hypoglycemia and can leave you feeling faint. This is because your body has used up all your available glucose.

That’s insulin just doing its job, if we’re lucky! Some aren’t so fortunate and are either born with health issues or develop them over time, meaning they spend their lives having to manage their own sugar levels with insulin injections or the like. When we pay attention to our body’s signals, and make the commitment to invest in our health in the way we invest in our jobs, our relationships, change is possible. It can start with simply becoming aware of how food makes us our bodies feel, understanding how much we are actually nourishing ourselves versus how much we are feeding emotional cravings.  How honest are we being with ourselves; what foods amplify cravings instead of leaving us feeling nourished and satisfied?

Words by Amy Mabin

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