What It Feels Like to Regain Your Insulin Sensitivity

The insulin molecule.

Like many men, when I hit my early thirties I started to get a little fat.  At my heaviest I was just a little chunky.  I think that at a certain point I started to become less sensitive to the hormone insulin, which in turn led to a host of other negative health effects.  I’d like to share my experience of reversing this trend.  With changes to my diet and lifestyle, I regained my insulin sensitivity.

The day after Halloween seems like an appropriate day to write this post — for one thing I need to fortify my own willpower so I don’t eat too much of the leftover candy.

No American would have called me fat, but a European from ten years ago might have singled me out as being able to lose a few pounds (these days Europeans are almost as chubby as Americans).  It was a slow kind of weight gain, evenly distributed throughout my body, so it wasn’t very noticeable.  I had been lean my whole life — all the way into my late twenties, so it took a few years to actually notice that I was getting heavier (and not from muscle).  I remember one moment in particular when I was sitting down and caught my reflection in the mirror.  My midsection was just too wide.  When I asked for the brutal truth, my wife confirmed that I could lose a few pounds.  That was it — I needed to get skinnier.

Shredded wheat won’t get you shredded abs.

I thought my diet at the time was “healthful,” but in fact it was horrible.  I was eating a lot of “natural” breakfast cereals with soy milk.  I rarely ate meat, chicken, or fish, and got most of my protein from beans, dairy products, and nuts.  I ate plenty of fruit but not very many vegetables.

My metabolism was a mess.  I couldn’t go two hours without having a snack.  Sometimes my snacks were fruit or nuts, but other times I might eat cookies or just grab a handful of chocolate chips.  I was probably on the slow track towards Type 2 diabetes.

What Is Insulin Resistance?

Insulin is the hormone that lowers your blood sugar, and shuttles glucose (sugar) into your fat, liver, and muscle cells to be stored later.  When your body is flooded with too much insulin too much of the time, your cells can become resistant, or desensitized, to its effects.  This can lead to Type 2 diabetes.  More recently, scientists who study metabolic physiology have learned that insulin response may be linked to the expression of genes that control aging (links to PubMed abstract).  This article in the Daily Mail explains the research in layman’s terms.

In short, losing your insulin sensitivity may not only lead to weight gain and problems with controlling your blood sugar levels, but may in fact accelerate aging on every level.  On the other hand, becoming more sensitive to insulin may be a fountain of youth, at least to some extent.

Insulin resistance is a modern epidemic.  The probable suspects are as follows:

1) A diet high in refined foods (white flour, white sugar) and low-fat dairy products (which have relatively higher amounts of both lactose and casein).

2) A diet high in fructose, especially high fructose corn syrup.

3) A diet high in gluten and lectins (neolithic foods — especially grains).

4) Sedentary lifestyle (a lot of sitting, lack of exercise).

The traditional cavewoman diet yields impressive results.

Item 3 is probably the least substantiated by well designed scientific studies, but this article outlines some intriguing research.  Looking at population studies, Type 2 diabetes is non-existent among populations that eat traditional paleolithic diets (absent of grains, dairy products, and refined foods).  Some of these traditional groups, like the Kitavans, have a diet that is high in starchy foods and low in protein, so a high carbohydrate diet may not be a problem in and of itself.  Problems may occur when the carbohydrates are separated from naturally occurring fiber, vitamins, and minerals (foods like white bread, soda, or sweetened soy milk), or gluten (found in grains like wheat and rye) may trigger neurological pathways that lead to overeating.

Exorphins — The Food Drug

Gluten (found in wheat) and casein (found in milk, cheese, and yogurt) can be broken down into peptides (proteins) that have opioid-like effects on mammalian brains.  The proteins have been dubbed exorphins, and are addictive in nature.  Consider this; most people would find the idea of giving up bread and cheese more distressing than the idea of giving up chard or yams.  Exorphins produce a mild euphoria and may even provide pain relief.  Going cold-turkey off of bread and dairy can produce withdrawal symptoms like joint pain, headache, and irritability, even if dietary carbohydrate levels are kept the same.

Red wine may be a delicious preservative.

Not every addictive food is damaging to health.  Coffee and tea are highly addictive, as are alcoholic beverages, but moderate consumers of both seem to enjoy superior health.  The same is true for dark chocolate.  Dairy products may not be good for everyone, but whole-milk, non-homogenized, organic dairy products may offer more health benefits than drawbacks to growing children and nursing mothers.

In my own experience, not eating grains and dairy led to fat loss, heightened awakeness (especially after meals), and increased muscle gain.  Psychologically, I feel more driven and less passive when I abstain from exorphin foods.  This could be psychosomatic, or it could be a sort of lifting of a narcotic veil.  If I feel too edgy, I can come down easily by eating grain and dairy based “comfort foods.”

How I Lost Twenty Pounds of Fat Over Five Years, and Regained My Health

At my heaviest, I was suffering from moderate asthma and was having trouble sleeping.  My interest in nutrition led me to explore how changing my diet and taking different supplements might improve my health.

The First Five Pounds

Cutting out “naturally sweetened” breakfast cereals (evaporated cane juice is still sugar), sweetened soy milk, white flour (mac and cheese anyone?), and daily desserts was relatively easy and very effective.  I started to get lighter and leaner.  In terms of supplements, I added moderate doses (2oo mcg a few times a week) of chromium picolinate, which some studies have shown has a positive effect on insulin sensitivity.

The Second Five Pounds

Going on a lower-grain diet, and eating some meals that were entirely free of grains or other starches, led to continued weight loss.  My business partner at one point noted that my metabolism had changed — I no longer needed a snack break every hour or two.

Intense food cravings largely dissipated, and my health improved in a number of ways.  My breathing improved, my allergies became much less severe.

I added fish oil and cod liver oil as supplements, and noticed an additional weight loss effect.  Both of these supplements also improved my mood.  I simply  felt happy more often (sometimes unreasonably so), and sad/demoralized less often.

The Third Five Pounds

A beautifully prepared sashimi and vegetable dish.

My “default” meal eventually switched to grain-free instead of “pile o’ starch.”  Breakfast might be an omelet with vegetables or fruit.  Lunch might be a salad with canned salmon, nuts, seeds, avocado, and olive oil and vinegar dressing (high fat, but all good fats).  Dinner might be chicken or meat with vegetables like leafy greens and squash.  I’ll usually have a beer or glass of wine with dinner.  I drink black coffee in the morning and sometimes tea in the afternoon.  If I get hungry in the afternoon I’ll eat some fruit or (very) dark chocolate.  Sometimes, though, I would “cheat” and eat whatever I wanted.  I don’t beat myself up when I eat less healthful foods — but I do try to always observe the effects certain foods have on my health.

Going more-or-less “paleo” meant eating more animal products.  I have mixed feelings about eating other animals, especially animals that I guess to have some level of sentience (like pigs and cows).  I’ve written about that topic here if you’re interested.  I do, for the most part, only eat animals that are humanely raised and slaughtered (restaurants and dinner parties sometimes excepted).

I also added 5K IU vitamin D3 on most days.  The effects?  The last of my asthma symptoms went away, I got even leaner, and I stopped getting colds.  I recently mentioned how much vitamin D I was taking to my new doctor at Kaiser, and he immediately said that I was taking too much.  I pointed out the professional medical opinions vary a great deal on this topic, and requested a blood test.  After taking my supposed “megadose” of vitamin D almost daily for a few years, my blood levels were 63 ng/mL.  This is considered just slightly above average.  I think I’ll continue my current supplement regimen unchanged, especially through the winter.

Edit: read this post for my more recent thoughts on fat soluble vitamins.

The Last Five Pounds

Go ahead, click on my abs. I dare you.

I continued to get slimmer and more “insulin sensitive” by eating more slowly and being careful not to overeat.  I also reduced my drinking, cutting out hard alcohol for the most part (I’ll drink good Scotch maybe once a month now, instead of several times a week).  Since this entire process happened over a number of years (I’m 41 now — I was 35 at my heaviest), it never felt difficult and I never felt deprived.  At the moment my waistline fluctuates between 28″ and 29″, and my weight between 150 and 155 (I’m about 5’8″).  If I want to slim down I’ll be more strict about my diet (no grain or dairy products, no refined foods) and also cut back on beer, sweet fruits, and other high carb foods.

What It Feels Like

The biggest subjective difference (besides feeling thinner) is that I no longer have to eat as often.  If I miss or meal or two I’ll get hungry, but my energy won’t flag and I won’t get crabby.  I’m not an expert in human physiology, but I imagine this means:

1) My body can convert fat into glucose easily and efficiently regulate my blood sugar.

2) I’m no longer as addicted to “exorphins” so I don’t experience opioid withdrawals if I go without food for awhile.

There’s also a subtle emotional difference.  My emotions are probably a little closer to the surface than they were — I may be less “drugged” or “numbed out” by the effects of a high carbohydrate, high exorphin diet.  Life tends to feel fairly intense for me now, even though I’m happy most of the time.  It’s a good feeling — I feel alive!

25 responses to “What It Feels Like to Regain Your Insulin Sensitivity

  1. I went through almost the same thing, in almost exactly those stages, except in my case it was 50 lbs. over 2 years. So you must be on to something.

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  4. Hi JD,
    I am a registered dietitian, and I love food! (As Julia Child’s said, ‘I love to eat!’ “) I love to cook, and try out recipes, and create recipes. I am not fastidious about my eating like many dietitians are!

    I have done a lot of research on insulin sensitivity, starting with a research project at the university. I agree with you! It is interesting how addicting the grains and dairy products are. When I was younger, I didn’t have a fat/weight problem. After having children, if I was determined enough to exercise and cut out sweets, I lost the fat/weight with no problem. But, as I got older, I noticed that I had to decrease even the whole grains, legumes, high fructose fruits and dairy products to keep my fat/weight at a desirable level. It is hard for me to avoid grains and especially milk, and there have been times that I have gone back to my eating habits of when I was younger. However, even if I return to giving up sweets, I do not have the same ability to lose the fat/weight. I have learned through my experience, that I must eat the paleolithic diet for best results, although I do have cottage cheese, cheese, butter, with limited amounts of high fiber starchy vegetables, and fruits in the form of berries and cherries. Occasionally, I have limited whole grains and legumes.

    Many people would say that I was just getting less calories than I was when I didn’t follow the paleolithic diet, but it wasn’t the calories, because I would eat a lot of meat and the calories would add up! However, even with more calories, I would still be leaner and lighter.

    About 6 years ago, I was in the middle of a very stressful time in my life. One of the ways I coped was that I didn’t follow the paleolithic diet at that time. I gained considerable fat/wt, and my health suffered. I had very high cortisol levels, along with high triglycerides.

    I finally was given the strength and motivation to go back to my paleolithic ways and I began exercising again. During that time, I began bio-identical hormone replacement as well. I was amazed at how my energy level improved. I trained for my first marathon and I was able to run 11 miles or ride my bike over 30 miles! I was so grateful to lose 70 lb over a 2 yr period. I also lost over 5 inches all the way around! To me, that was amazing!

    Like you, I don’t always follow my plan either. But I know my plan works for me and I feel better when I follow it. I work to accept and not condemn myself when I choose to get off track, and then I work to get back on track. I chose to get off track over the holidays, for example, and now I am back on track.

    I have been researching sleep and its effect on insulin sensitivity, and I found your articles very interesting. I am downloading f.lux for my computers and I am going to use less light in the evenings. I take melatonin but I have noticed that some nights it doesn’t work as well, and it may have been the brightness of my computer since I like to read and write in the evenings before bed.

    Thanks for sharing your insights! I look forward to reading more of your blogs and learning from your personal experiments!

    P.S. Oh, and by the way, our children sometimes slept with us while they nursed. Even later, they often climbed back in on my side of the bed- unbeknownst to me since I was so tired and I love snuggling! As they got older and slept in their own beds, I still would go in and cuddle at bedtime, reading stories and visiting. Our remaining teenagers at home still love it when we have our one on one time and they share with me their favorite/worst parts of the day. Our children who have left the home say that is one of their favorite memories and that bonding time meant so much to them. (Although my husband rolled his eyes when we were younger, later he was the one who often invited the younger ones to come cuddle!) My husband didn’t like being uncomfortable or losing sleep when the kids were young, but he often attributes our teenagers’ willingness to share their trials and innermost feelings with us to the closeness established at bedtime! Cherish those times. Childhood is so fleeting! And now you can have deep sleep and have kids cuddle with you! :)

  5. Thanks for your comment Karen. 70lbs weight loss is amazing.

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  9. Here’s a great post on insulin resistance vs. leptin resistance:


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  13. I do like reading your blog.

  14. Attia suggests that obesity is a response to insulin resistance (as opposed to insulin resistance being caused by obesity) http://www.ted.com/talks/peter_attia_what_if_we_re_wrong_about_diabetes.html

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  16. Ryno Botha

    hi JD,
    Hope your having a great day ? I am well and my plan to remove most/all grains and sugars is doing well( three weeks) not as easy as i have hoped. Family can be as helpful as it can be difficult. Used the gym few years back, realized that something was wrong. Lifting a bit of weight and cardio, anyway after weights i would become lethargic and nausea would have me grab a sugary drink. Nothing helped. Whey protein gives me almost instant sinus, becomes so bad that infection sets in within days.
    Cario did not seem to affect me that bad.
    My question is this: Does this mean that i was so dependant on sugar that my body could not release glucose from my liver quick enough to boost my energy ? It seem like i have lost about 2kg just by cutting most fizzydrinks, bread, and sugar in my coffee oh and crisps(chips) my big weakness.
    We mainly consume chicken, broccoli, red meat, salads. My wife also seems to be dropping some weight. BONUS :-)
    Now i just need to convince my over weight teenage daughter about this.
    She is a bread a holic. consumes it with passion. In fact she is 17 and has not started periods. I think that her body hormones are so messed due to grains and milk. Oh forgot to mention that ashma also taken over in her body, constantly using a pump to help her. Any ideas form your side ? Her health could be so much better. In fact i am going to introduce her to your website so she could read for herself. She is also looking for a way to fix her eating habbits. Does not advertise it though, but i can see it in her heart.
    Thanks again for helping us to help ourselfs…Ryno

    • You might need to increase your non-grain carbs a bit to support your exercise (fresh fruit and starchy vegetables). I would recommend http://www.marksdailyapple.com for more on diet and exercise. For your daughter please see the Asthma post in the Top Posts section to the right — I was able to get rid of my own asthma symptoms by switching to a more paleo diet.

  17. Adam Francis

    Good luck having large amounts of energy on that diet! Yay! Who cares if you’ve no energy! A long as you’re insulin sensitive!
    Excuse my sarcasm but this is bullshit. Please read reversing diabetes by Dr. Neil Bernard immediately. Also watching the BBC program, fat vs sugar will hopefully make it all clear for you.
    In short, more fat means more blockage from glucose entering cells, i.e., resisting insulin.

    • Hi Adam. Insulin resistance is associated with high triglycerides (which are comprised of free fatty acids). So you’re partially correct; insulin resistance is associated with high blood lipids. But high triglycerides are caused by excess caloric intake, especially fructose. Insulin resistance is inversely associated with Omega-3 fatty acid intake. So not all fats are bad.

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  20. This was a great read. It’s interesting to note how many people are having success on a grain-free Paleo-style diet. I relate to a lot of what you’ve experienced! Brilliantly written – thank you for sharing your wisdom with the world.

  21. Actually, casein (dairy protein) is not bad for you and the misconceived notion about saturated fats (mostly from dairy and meat) being bad for you are finally beginning to be disproved by numerous studies for the first time in a very long time. Casein is actually slower burning protein which means it won’t cause your insulin to spike as whey protein will. Milk, however, is loaded with sugar, where cheese and greek yogurt have way less. Read the sugar content of dairy products and try for as close to zero as possible. This is also helpful to those who are lactose intolerant since lactose is the sugar in milk and cheese with 0 grams sugar is lactose free, probably due to the cheese cultures feeding off all of it. Increasing insulin sensitivity is more than just decreasing insulin spikes, but increasing good fats in your diet, the fats from meat and fish (especially grass-fed), high in omega-3 fatty acids, is one of the primary benefactors. My diet consists of fish, meat, poultry, cheese, eggs, and highly fibrous greens with the exception of cauliflower, and despite consuming a higher amount of fat than most dieters, I’ve lost a lot of weight on this diet alone, 30 lbs in 3 months, with .5-2 lbs of weight loss per week being pretty normal after the initial faster weight loss rate, and I either don’t get hungry or the hunger I feel is vastly different than what I feel eating carbs which sans carbs is more just something you notice than something you feel.

  22. I have incorporated a one day on, one day off carbs; but even on my carb days I try not to have bread or pasta. My carbs are usually just rice and veggies.
    I have lost 5 lbs. in 2 weeks and went from 15.1% body fat to 13.4% but the past week I have lost nothing.

    • Good for you Joe … plateaus are natural. Focus on making your diet as healthful as possible and experiment with your exercise program. Build on what works. Keep it up!

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