If you’ve ever seen a performance by the Harlem Globetrotters, you may remember one of their tricks where they simultaneously spin multiple basketballs on fingers on both hands, and even their heads! It is an ultimate test in balance. If they let down their guard for one second, they risked dropping all of the balls. In a way, the hormone insulin is like a Harlem Globetrotter, furiously and constantly working to maintain balance of blood sugar in the body, which is critical to maintaining a healthy weight. If insulin drops the ball, your blood sugar levels can get out of whack, leading to some fairly serious repercussions on your weight and health.
So how exactly does insulin regulate blood sugar balance? It all starts with the food (including beverages) we consume. Food supplies the body with the carbohydrates necessary to perform activities, even while we are at rest or asleep. But carbohydrates, or sugars, cannot enter cells directly. They need a teammate, so to speak, to help them get into the cells. That’s where insulin steps in. Insulin attaches itself to the sugars entering the body and then flows with them through the blood stream to their final destinations. It is insulin that is responsible for “dunking” sugars into the cells so they can convert to energy.
However, if there is too much sugar in the blood stream, perhaps caused by foods high in simple sugars, it can’t all be converted to energy at the same time. Insulin then needs to find a place to park the excess carbs, so it introduces them to another teammate - the liver. The liver accepts the carbohydrates, converting them to fat and storing it for when the body needs to draw on its reserves for energy at a later time.
Insulin continuously runs these plays day and night to keep blood sugar levels in check, balancing those balls.
But what happens if the body doesn’t produce enough insulin to maintain proper blood sugar balance? Or what if cells in the body somehow resist insulin’s power to enable carbs to enter? This resistance causes blood sugar levels to elevate, putting more pressure on the liver to store fat. If this condition persists for long periods of time, it is likely to develop into type 2 diabetes, increasing risk of heart attack, stroke, blindness, and kidney failure.
So you can see why it’s so important to have properly functioning insulin levels. But what causes insulin resistance in the first place? It has been widely documented that its most common cause is obesity, with 90% of type 2 diabetics having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. Thirty-seven percent of US adults meet that clinical definition of obesity, making it clear that many balls are being dropped at staggering levels.
However, the good news is that obesity is both preventable AND reversible, which means that type 2 diabetes can also be prevented and reversed. For instance, in one research study, people with type 2 diabetes engaged in weight loss activities, including calorie reduction (from 1800 to 1200 daily calories), exercise 175 minutes a week), and weekly behavioral counseling sessions. Within a year, about 10% discontinued their diabetes medications or improved to the point where their blood sugar level was no longer in the diabetes range.
If you feel like your weight might be throwing your insulin and blood sugar levels off balance, just know that there are some simple steps you can take to restore it, mainly through weight loss. And more good news - no basketball spinning skills are required!