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Insulin and your health

What is insulin and what does it do?

Insulin is a hormone produced and secreted by the pancreas, a glandular organ situated behind the stomach. Its primary task is to regulate the level of sugar (glucose) as it travels through the bloodstream; however, it also performs a number of other functions.

Insulin, by activating or inhibiting various metabolic pathways can make us sleepy, hungry, dizzy, satisfied, can raise blood pressure, elevate cholesterol levels, make us store fat and cause the body to retain fluid. In appropriate amounts insulin keeps everything in balance, in excess it starts to wreak havoc on the individual.

Insulin and it’s effect on our cholesterol levels.

It is true that fat is the raw material from which the body makes cholesterol, and it is also true that if you add more fat to your diet your cholesterol will increase, but only if you continue to eat a lot of carbohydrate at the same time that you add the fat.

An interesting point to make here is that 70-80% of cholesterol is produced by the body, mostly in the liver, the intestines, and the skin. Elevated insulin levels increase the production of cholesterol at these sites.

As insulin is required to run the cellular machinery that actually makes the cholesterol, if you reduce the amount of insulin being secreted by the pancreas, the liver cells cannot convert the fat being ingested into cholesterol.

Given this, by reducing the levels of insulin in the body, you can actually limit the amount of cholesterol that the body produces. As there are no drugs that can reduce insulin levels - dietary measures and exercise are the only effective treatment.

Controlling your insulin levels

Insulin is secreted in response to heightened levels of glucose in the blood. This gives us an easy way to control the amount of insulin being secreted by the pancreas. By reducing the level of carbohydrate in your diet you can minimise the amount of insulin secreted and dramatically reduce the amount of cholesterol your body produces.

Of course, this does not mean that someone on the lowered carbohydrate diet should consume large amounts of fat. Indeed, most proponents of the lowered carb diet recommend a moderate but not high fat intake (especially of saturated fats). Unlike conventional diets which ban many high quality protein foods because of their fat content, the lowered carbohydrate diet recommends using these products where appropriate, but using control of insulin levels to minimise the body’s production of cholesterol.

Heart disease and hypertension are related through a common denominator – too much insulin. Many of the orthodox medicines currently prescribed for hypertension increase insulin levels (diuretics, beta-blockers).

A typical scenario

Patient is overweight, and develops high blood pressure so the doctor prescribes a mild diuretic and a low salt diet. Patient’s blood pressure lowers, but their cholesterol level increases. To combat this the patient is put on a low fat diet. A little weight is lost but triglycerides and/or blood sugar levels have risen too, creating a new set of problems. All these disorders are related through a single disturbance of excess insulin that is being aggravated by their current treatment.

Cardiovascular Disease.

Over the past few decades, Western populations have been bombarded with information linking “high-fat” diets with increased blood pressure, coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis. Rather than being as simple as a high fat intake causing cardiovascular disease, it appears that some other factors may be at play.

Given the increasing incidence of heart disease in America, one would expect to find a corresponding increase in animal fat in the American diet (if you assume that heart disease results from the consumption of saturated fats). Actually the reverse is true.

During the sixty year period from 1910 to 1970, the proportion of traditional animal fat in the American diet plummeted from 83% to 62%, the proportion of butter consumption from 18 pounds per person per year to 4”. (Fallon, 1995).

So with the consumption of saturated animal fat falling, and the incidence of heart disease increasing, we come back to our discussion of insulin’s role in the production of cholesterol. By reducing blood sugar levels (and therefore insulin levels), a lowered carbohydrate diet inhibits the body’s ability to convert the fat being ingested into cholesterol. As such, it has a positive effect on a number of the risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.