Obesity and hunger: the Insulin-glucagon axis of evil


So hunger eh. Normalising hunger signals and eliminating body shame. My two keys to the obesity conundrum. Diets don’t work the biggest loser is next years biggest gainer and all that stuff.

So here’s a brilliant insight into hunger regulation from Barry Sears (author of the Zone Diet book series, not as gripping as Game of Thrones but more informative). Insulin is half of a hormonal axis; it has an opposite, glucagon. Insulin is the evil twin, the Hyde to glucagon’s Dr Jekyll. Insulin’s dirty fingerprints can be found on many health murder cases (accelerated ageing, Alzheimers, lists as long as your arm).

I’m assuming dear well informed readers you don’t want to hear trotted out again the story that high glycemic index (GI) foods trigger high blood sugar, faster than you can say ‘make insulin’. Insulin, to protect us from deadly, sticky, sugary blood, lowers blood sugar by ushering it into cells. And then, just to be on the safe side, insulin locks the cell doors, so the sugar can’t get out.

If you pour sugar into your blood faster than you’ve adapted to deal with it, you can’t make insulin fast enough to keep up. It’s not an instantaneous system. So your body overshoots, still producing insulin once the sugar has stopped going in; your blood sugar falls, triggering a ‘post-carb’ low blood sugar rebound … and hunger.

And now we know about the glycemic index; the worst villain at flooding your blood with sugar is surprisingly, not sugar (which is bad) but (ahem) ‘healthy’ whole grains. Wheat, in particular, has a very high GI and triggers the blood sugar seesaw.

The body has biofeedback mechanisms; it can increase or decrease the number of receptors at the cell surface, to ensure it gets the right amount of activity. A drug addict’s brain cells fight back against being flooded with pleasure sensations by reducing the number of pleasure receptors. This is why addicts need more of the drug to get the same pleasure response. The same way, the cells says ‘hey, wait a minute, insulin, you’re giving me far more sugar than I need. Go find somewhere else to put it” and reduces the number of insulin receptors. So next time you flood your blood with dangerous levels of sugar, the body has to push harder into different cells to regulate it. Fat cells, liver cells muscle cells… eventually close up shop against sugar. And then you have insulin resistance. You need more insulin to push sugar into the cells.

Did you also know that insulin does not just transport sugar? My doctor dropped this little bombshell to me. It transports nutrients into cells. So if the cell wall is shut to insulin, the cell can send out as many signals as it likes that it needs, say, vitamin C, but the cell gates are closed. To everything. Now remember Paul Jaminet saying that it’s a survival trait for nutrient deficiencies to drive hunger. So your cells are hungry, and there might even be enough Vitamin C circulating in your blood, but because of the insulin resistance the cell can’t get it.

Now glucagon, the crucial weight loss hormone you’ve never heard of? Glucagon’s role is to unlock the cell and bring nutrients out. It’s your hunger equivalent of an ATM card. Low blood sugar? Here let me get some sugar out of your fat stores for you, says glucagon. And yes, that means losing weight from fat cells. In Ghostbusters parlance, glucagon is the keymaster to the cell wall’s gatekeeper. Slim people without insulin resistance simply go and get the nutrients they need from their little cell ATMs. Yep they don’t feel hungry between meals because their nutrient systems are instantaneous and nobody goes without. For us traditionally built, we have a lag between insulin and glucagon…a time delay during which our ATM system is not working, and we are in essence not able to pya for any coffees or shoe repairs or things our cells need money for. We’re wealthy in energy stores, but hungry, and it hurts a lot! We shuffle around like those homeless people that are actually wealthy, staring into the shop windows but no cash on hand to buy.

Here’s the kicker. To have glucagon, you need to NOT have insulin. When I was a kid we had this little weather house. On a hot dry day a blue man would come out one door, on a cold damp day and a pink woman would come out the other door. Because they were on the opposite ends of a rod, you never saw the blue man or the pink woman together. So imagine that glucagon, the pink woman, is shy and only comes out once insulin, the blue man, has gone. The more insulin is present, the less you’ll see of shy glucagon. Insulin’s job is to lock sugar into the cell; no sense in having glucagon ruin all his work.

But with insulin resistance, insulin is high, and high for a long time in the day. Glucagon can’t come out; your body can be hungry and call for nutrients, but they are all locked away. So your body tells you to eat. Voila, hunger. And someone has bent the wee rod, the axis between them, so the glucagon takes longer to come out than normal people.

So how do you know you’re insulin resistant? You can pay for a blood test but pretty much a glance in the mirror is a pretty good mirror – the ole’ tummy fat, waist size larger than hip size. You’re an apple, not a pear…

And that tummy fat, stored in the ‘fatty apron’ or omentum (Dr Oz showed a normal and a fatty omentum on Oprah; something I can never un-see) unlke more benign fat stores, is ported direct from the liver. It has all sorts of nasty correlations but in the absence of expensive blood tests can be read as a sign of insulin resistance, small dense LDL, inflammation, high cortisol (chronic stress).

To cap it off, there are several ways that you can become insulin resistant. I spent ages mucking around with low carb and no sugar and so on, until I found that stress raises insulin. Stress says, you need to be ready to run or fight; don’t muck around with feeding. Of course it’s hard to take stress seriously because well it’s a fact of modern life and how hard can it be? Harden up! You don’t have time to meditate or do breathing exercises or laugh and play.

And then I find out that sleep apnea causes really high spikes in stress all through the night, and can make you insulin resistant despite anything you do with your diet or daytime stress…aaagh! Years wasted.

To reflect on the overall theme, the circadian rhythm out of whack raises cortisol. And the microbes in the gut stress you through inflammation and endotoxins. So cortisol, and insulin resistance are a big deal. Hereby endeth the lesson on insulin and shy glucagon, and the importance of not just eating the right micronutrients but getting them to the cells that need them You may go and mull over that for a while until I work out how to proceed on the enormous topic of micronutrients without boring you all. Until next time, toodle pip!


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