Insulin is Like Money in the Bank

Have you ever considered that the amount of insulin you are capable of making over your lifetime is limited? That your pancreas can make, oh, let’s just call it 1000 pounds, of insulin, and that after that it starts to have trouble trying to keep up with demand? Think about that. What would happen if you used up most of your supply by the time you were 40 or 50? Then what?

Insulin has many roles in your body, and one is as a fat-storage hormone. When I meet a new patient for the first time, I can tell if their insulin levels are elevated just by looking at them. People with high insulin levels usually can be identified by the extra pounds around their middle (even if the rest of them is relatively slender), by swelling around the eyes, by prominent cheeks (doctors call these buccal fat pads), and by a double chin. In other words, people with high insulin levels look like babies. That’s because babies have high insulin levels naturally. Insulin is a growth hormone, and babies are growing, so they’re supposed to have high insulin levels. But it should begin to go away somewhere around age 2 or 3.

Let’s take this idea one step further.

Imagine that your pancreas was endowed with slightly less than the average number of “beta islet” cells, the ones that are responsible for making insulin. So whereas some people can manage even while eating a diet that essentially wastes insulin over the course of their entire lives, you start having trouble keeping up with the demand when you are still in your 20s, or even earlier. It could happen. There’s a lot of genetic variability: Some people have greater ability to run far distances than others; some people are able to compute long columns of complex numbers in their heads without any specific training; some have an almost preternatural understanding of how animals think. So it would not be out of the realm of possibility to consider that some people are endowed with greater insulin-making capacity than others.

But guess what? It doesn’t matter. We live in a “diabetogenic” environment, a world that actually causes diabetes. Yes, it’s that black and white. If current trends continue, approximately 50% of Medicare recipients (individuals over 65) can be expected to carry a diagnosis of diabetes. Approximately one-third of current 15 year olds are expected to become diabetic in their lifetimes. We are wasting insulin by the bucketful, and large numbers of people are starting to run out. So many people no longer have enough insulin that you can no longer say it’s because of their genetics. 

Many people have heard of insulin spikes, which happen after you eat something that you absorb very quickly. Items like orange juice, white flour, sugar, corn syrup and corn starch, and white rice are absorbed most quickly, which is why I recommend (in the strongest terms) that you limit them to the greatest extent possible. You can avoid insulin spikes by shifting your diet in the direction of foods you absorb slowly, especially vegetables, beans and other high-quality protein, nutritious fats, fruit and whole grains.

The fewer insulin spikes you experience, the less insulin you use over the weeks, months, years and decades. The less insulin you use overall, the more likely you are to have enough to last a lifetime. This is what I call insulin conservation. It’s just like money in the bank. If you use it all now, you won’t have any left for later.

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