Updated: May 17, 2021
Most people are not familiar with insulin and its important role in our weight, metabolism, and hormone balance. Insulin's main role is to bring glucose (energy) into our cells. Insulin is often termed the fat-storage hormone because if levels are high in our blood, that means our body is able to store energy (fat) very easily, making it extremely difficult to lose weight despite a healthy diet and exercise.
In this article you will learn how insulin functions in the body, what you can do to naturally decrease levels and promote healthy weight loss!
What does insulin do in the body?
The goal of the foods recommended in my PCOS diet is to provide the body with all the essential nutrients needed for proper hormone production, blood sugar management, and anti-inflammatory benefits. As a whole this diet will keep inflammation down in the body so that it does not contribute to worsening of hormone imbalance, weight gain, and other symptoms.
Testing Insulin Levels
Insulin is actually a very easy and inexpensive test to have completed. You can ask your doctor if they will order it for you through insurance, or you can order it yourself through Ulta Labs. Ulta Labs is a nationwide company that uses direct access labs, usually Quest Labs for their draw. They are able to provide low cost labs directly to you, the consumer, by ordering labs in bulk.
Here is a link to their Fasting Insulin Test for only $12.95 when you add code ULTA0615 at checkout. If you haven’t had labs drawn in a while I would also recommend adding a couple basic panels, including: basic metabolic panel which includes glucose, complete blood count, and lipid panel.
You can find the lab nearest you here.
Stress and Insulin
Cortisol, our stress hormone, can make fat and muscle cells resistant to the action of insulin and increase the production of glucose by the liver if elevated or out of balance. This is why stress management in addition to diet is important for lowering insulin levels.
If stress is an issue you are struggling with, some starting points you can do to make an impact on insulin levels would be to eliminate stimulants like caffeine and sugar, take a high-quality multivitamin, and incorporate daily exercise.
Insulin, Sugar, and Weight Gain
When you eat a larger than normal amount of sugar, your blood sugar levels spike and lead to a higher level of insulin. High insulin levels signal the body to store energy as fat, leading to weight gain especially around the midsection (3).
Insulin also affects the hormone leptin, which is our natural appetite suppressant telling our brain we are full and should stop eating. Imbalanced insulin levels, along with high consumption of added sugars can lead to leptin resistance. Leptin resistance is when our brain no longer hears the “full/satiety” cues and we start eating larger quantities.
How harmful is sugar?
High sugar consumption over an extended period of time can disrupt your hormone balance. Hormones are chemical messengers involved in every function of your body, especially metabolism and weight gain. When you eat sugar it increases your blood glucose (sugar) level.
When your blood sugar level increases it signals the pancreas to release the hormone insulin. Insulin is a key to the cells. It opens the cell’s door so that glucose can go in and be used for energy.
I recommend everyone limit their daily sugar intake. An adult woman should not consume more than 25 grams of added sugar per day. Other foods that can trigger inflammation, especially in women with hormone imbalances include dairy, soy, gluten, and corn. Alcohol and caffeine should be avoided if you have trouble sleeping or regulating mood, anxiety, and depression.
Now that you have an overall understanding of what foods we want to limit, what foods we want to eat more of, and what else you can be doing to support your body!
A Whole Food, Low Sugar Diet
A healthy, low-sugar diet is highly recommended for decreasing insulin levels and managing blood sugar. You already read through my sugar limiting recommendations, so let's talk about what foods to eat more of.
We are going to focus on 3 things: Fiber, Protein, and Healthy Fat. A diet high in fiber, healthy fats, and quality protein will help to keep you satisfied and full. These foods also help to slow down the release of glucose in the body.
It is important to get into the habit of always incorporating a protein and/or healthy fat at every meal and snack. See below for snack pairing ideas. You can also download my free hormone jump-start guide for meal planning tips and recipes.
Snack Pairings (Carb + Protein + Fat)
Fruit + Nut Butter
Celery + Hummus
Avocado + Sea Salt
Cherry Tomatoes + Walnuts
Plain Greek Yogurt + Berries
Hard-boiled Egg + Apple
Rice Cake + Turkey + Tomato
Work on increasing fiber in your diet. I want this to be from whole foods and not a supplement. Your goal of 30 grams per day. You want to slowly increase fiber, about 5 grams every few days, to prevent constipation or digestive issues.
Dietary fiber can be found in all plants, but some of the foods with the highest fiber content include:
Quality Protein Foods
Eating high quality protein with carbohydrates for snacks and meals will help to balance blood sugar and keep you full. For animal proteins make sure to choose organic, grass-fed.
Plant-based proteins are also a great option. If you have trouble with digestion of plant-based proteins you may need to incorporate a gut-healing protocol and support digestion through dietary and supplemental remedies. Reach out to me to learn more about these protocols.
If you are having trouble getting enough protein in your day, you can add a clean ingredient protein powder. Here is a favorite of mine.
Nuts and Seeds, Raw or Sprouted are Best
Beans and Legumes, Sprouted are Best
Gluten-Free Whole Grains like Rice, Quinoa, and Millet
Should I take Medication or Nutrition Supplements?
Both can actually work together, but if you have not yet started medication then I would recommend waiting until you have tried the most effective natural method to see if you can avoid prescription medication.
If you are deciding between metformin or natural supplement, I recommend my clients start with natural supplement and give it 6-8 weeks to see how your body responds. Then if you need additional support, start metformin low-dose. Blended inositol 40:1 I recommend to all the women I see in my nutrition practice with PCOS. Will do wonders for support of the ovaries and insulin management.
Berberine is well studied for its similar effect on the body as metformin (while being natural without the side effects). Berberine supplementation for insulin sensitivity. Therapeutic dose in meta-analysis was 500 mg, three times daily. Here is a link to the Meta-Analysis Study, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6261244/
Daily Supplement Support
Supplements help to replete nutrients in our body, support production of hormones, and decrease inflammation much quicker than if you were to try and use only whole foods. Unfortunately our food today is just not as powerful and rich in nutrients as it used to be.
It is important when choosing supplements to make sure that the brand and ingredients are high-quality and safe for consumption. The forms of vitamins and minerals is also important, for example folic acid is synthetic (man-made in the lab) and folate is the naturally occurring vitamin.
Find my favorite brands and recommendations for supplements on Fullscript. Create your free account and search through my protocols or click the links below.
Omega-3 Fish Oil with at least 1000 mg EPA + DHA
Vitamin D3 - 2000 IU daily
Magnesium - 350 mg daily
It can feel like our body is working against us, but please know that is never the case!
If you're looking for additional guidance and support, let me know. Now is the time to invest in yourself and your body. You deserve to feel happy, energized, and comfortable in your body! Apply to work with me here
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Liz Riesen, Registered Dietitian
works specifically with women's hormones, inflammation, and digestive health. Often these conditions coexist and share common disruptive symptoms including bloating, weight gain, anxiety, mood swings, irregular cycles, and other inflammatory symptoms.
Liz is trained in identifying and healing food sensitivities, as well as balancing hormones naturally through nutrition and lifestyle. Follow me @moms.hormone.dietitian