How do you feel today? Does your mood and energy level swing up and down? Do you crave sugar or salt? Are you overweight and putting on more belly fat? If you are a woman, do you have PMS, painful or heavy periods, and/or a low sex drive? Are you depressed? Do you sleep poorly?Do you feel tired but have trouble sleeping? Do you have to rely on coffee in the morning just to get yourself out of bed?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone! This is how many Americans feel because we are not living in sync with our natural biological rhythms. The reason for this is that two of the very small, but very mighty and important molecules in our body are running amok. We rely on these molecules to keep us balanced and feeling good.
We are talking about hormones and neurotransmitters and both of these are involved in almost every function in the entire body. Hormones act as the messenger molecules of our endocrine system and neurotransmitters are the messenger molecules for our brains and nervous systems. Understanding how and why these systems get out of balance will help you see why so many Americans run around feeling tired, depressed, and overweight.
All of our hormones and neurotransmitters work together. The command center for our endocrine system are our hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which send signals to other parts of our body to control everything from our stress response (through our adrenal glands), our blood sugar (through our pancreas), our thyroid hormones (via the thyroid gland), and our sexual behavior (through our reproductive organs). They also control growth, sleep, mood, and much more. You can see how these things would need to work together to keep our body in balance since they are involved in so many processes.
Neurotransmitters send messages through our bodies to every cell, organ, and tissue and are responsible for everything from helping you move your fingers to whether you feel happy or sad. The three major problems that affect these systems and cause disease today are too much insulin, too much cortisol and adrenaline (from stress), and not enough thyroid hormone.
The biggest of these issues is to much insulin from too much sugar. Eighty-million Americans suffer from this condition that we call insulin resistance. It affects people all different kinds of people and is not exactly the same in every person. Most people who are suffering from insulin resistance have extra fat around their middle. If your waist to hip ratio is greater than 0.8 then you probably have insulin resistance.
It’s not a genetic defect or an mistake in the way we developed. The truth is that we have strayed from eating in a way that compliments our genes. As a hunter/gatherer species, we ate about 20 teaspoons of sugar per year. Now we eat as much as 150 pounds per year, with the average school-aged child eating about 34 teaspoons per day. That's a huge increase compared to what our genes were made to tolerate.
Historically, humans had to work for food and we had limited access to refined foods or foods that had excess calories. In the last 15-20 years there has been an increase in low-fat foods which, when combined with high-sugar and high-calorie foods have created an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
In insulin resistance, the production of insulin in response to food in our stomach is normal. But the problem comes with too much sugar, and too much insulin. Too much insulin has serious health implications.
As long as insulin levels in our blood are elevated, weight loss is difficult. One of the actions of insulin is on your brain to increase appetite, specifically for sugar. Insulin also increases LDL cholesterol, lowers HDL cholesterol, raises triglycerides, and increases your blood pressure, so you can see how it could contribute to diseases such as high cholesterol and hypertension.
Insulin can make your blood “sticky” and more likely to clot which leads to heart attack and stroke, it stimulates the growth of cancer cells and increases inflammation and oxidative stress which ages your brain. Too much insulin causes sex hormone imbalances that can lead to infertility, hair loss, acne, low testosterone in men, and mood disturbances, especially in children.
Balancing blood sugar and correcting insulin resistance (what happens when your body is constantly exposed to high levels of insulin in response to high levels of sugar consumption) might sound like an impossible task, but it is achievable. Here are some simple steps you can take:
- Stop eating products made with flour and sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup
- Limit liquid calories. Your body doesn’t feel full from these (soda, I’m looking at you!) so you end up eating more over the course of the day.
- Stop eating all processed and packaged foods, especially “junk” foods.
- Stop eating trans or hydrogenated fats
- Balance your meals to slow the rate of sugar uptake from your gut. This can be done by eating healthy proteins (nuts, seeds, beans, wild caught fish, and organic meats), healthy carbs (vegetables and fruits), and healthy fats (olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados).
- Eat plenty of fiber (30-50 grams a day), especially from vegetables.
- Space your meals out throughout the day.
- Move your body. Exercise improves the ability of your cells to respond to insulin and burn sugar faster and more efficiently.
Just balancing this one hormone can have a huge positive impact on all of the other hormones in your body. Before you get overwhelmed by trying to fix all of your hormones, start with insulin!