Inflammation and Insulin Resistance

What is the connection between inflammation and insulin?

What is insulin?

Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas. Its job is to move sugar from your bloodstream into your cells. This allows your cell to use the sugar or glucose for fuel. Insulin is vital to your body. Without it, your cells would be starved for fuel and blood sugar levels would continuously rise. This is what happens in diabetes.

What is insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance, also called pre-diabetes, is a condition where your pancreas is producing insulin but your body isn’t able to respond properly to the insulin. This means having to make extra insulin every time your blood sugar levels rise. As the name implies, it is considered to be a precursor condition of diabetes. Why is making extra insulin a problem? While insulin is essential to life, having excessive amounts has negative consequences including increasing inflammation, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is a natural function of your immune system. It’s a reaction to infection or injury that triggers a slew of chemical messages to your immune system to prompt healing and repair. It’s a word most of us associate with pain, discomfort, and poor health — yet its ultimate purpose is actually to help us get better. Without inflammation, injuries wouldn’t heal and infections could become deadly.

When your body is injured, the swelling and pain of inflammation is a signal to your immune system to send white blood cells so that the healing process may begin. Unfortunately, when inflammation becomes chronic, it triggers numerous other health problems in your body including cancers, depression, asthma and heart disease.

In some cases, inflammation occurs when the immune system revolts against us and attacks our own bodies as in autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, IBD, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis among dozens of others. There are over 80 different autoimmune diseases.

How are inflammation and insulin resistance-related?

Recent research reveals that conditions such as inflammation, endoplasmic reticulum stress, and mitochondrial dysfunction promote insulin resistance. Growing evidence shows us that chronic low-grade inflammation is involved in the development of insulin resistance. If cells are inflamed, they are more resistant to responding to insulin, so higher levels of insulin are needed.

How is Vitamin D involved in inflammation and insulin resistance?

Vitamin D increases the production of some anti-inflammatory cytokines and decreases the release of some pro-inflammatory cytokines. Women with PCOS often have low levels of vitamin D on blood tests. Many doctors maintain that, here in Canada, everyone is deficient in vitamin D. In practice, I have not seen that to be the case. Measurements to determine your vitamin D status are always beneficial.

Numerous studies show that low levels of Vitamin D are associated with higher levels of pro-inflammatory markers, insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, and obesity. Supplementation with vitamin D has shown mixed results. Perhaps, the reason that higher blood levels of vitamin D seem to be protective or beneficial, is because naturally higher blood levels of vitamin D are the result of being outside more and being active.

What Causes Inflammation?

The cause of inflammation in a person’s body really depends on the individual. There are multiple possible causes or contributing factors. The causes of inflammation include:

  • Food allergies or sensitivities
  • Spikes in blood sugar and insulin
  • Latent or low-grade infections
  • Gut dysbiosis or overgrowth of unhealthy microorganisms in the gut and a lack of beneficial flora
  • Low levels of Omega 3 and/or Omega 6 fatty acids
  • Oxidative stress
  • Mitochondrial dysfunction
  • Hormonal changes
  • Genetic tendencies
  • Sleep quality

How to Reduce Inflammation

In order to reduce your inflammation, we need to address all, or at least the most relevant, factors listed above.

Food Allergies or Sensitivities

Immune system reactions to a food trigger the release of antibodies that bind to antigens in the food. These antigen-antibody complexes deposit in tissue and trigger the release of inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines. These cytokines are meant to help your body fight foreign invaders or repair damaged tissue. Chronic release of these inflammatory chemicals leads to ongoing inflammation. Identifying full-blown IgE-mediated food allergies is usually not difficult. The reaction to the food is immediate and can be very intense, even life-threatening. Think of a peanut allergy type reaction. Food sensitivities or IgG-mediated food reactions are much more challenging to pinpoint. That’s because these reactions are milder and can occur hours or even days after exposure to the food. They are much less obvious, very common and hard to figure out without testing or elimination diet.

Spikes in Blood Sugar and Insulin

Correcting blood sugar and insulin problems is mainly through managing your diet. All of my patients get a detailed food list on their initial visit that shows which foods would be best for them specifically, and which foods would be worst. Following that list yields significant benefits in achieving a stable blood sugar level, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing insulin and balancing hormones. Everyone knows that consuming sugar is bad for them. They may not also realize that rice is equally bad, even brown rice. The customized list really helps people nail down which foods to enjoy and which ones to limit or remove.

Latent or Low-Grade Infections

Did you know that you may be harboring the bacteria that causes Strep throat, but have no clinical signs of it? Group A strep lives in the throat and tonsils of up to 20% of healthy children. Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infects more than 90% of the human population within the first twenty years of life and establishes a latent infection in certain white blood cells known as lymphocytes. Yet only a small percentage of the population is aware that they have contracted EBV. Those people will have mono or mononucleosis. Full-blown mono often affects teenagers. Those affected will be exhausted and want to sleep all day for weeks. How do we know if you have a latent infection? This one is tricky. A blood test called a blood cell count may show alterations in certain white blood cells that will indicate infection or it may not. There is a blood test for mono called a mono spot. Testing is also available for the Epstein-Barr virus. Collecting samples from every area of your body that may have bacteria, yeast or viruses in it or testing for every conceivable bacteria or virus is not feasible. Presumptive treatment to remove possible infectious agents is sometimes the only course of action if this is suspected.

Gut dysbiosis

If there are signs that your digestive tract is unhealthy (constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas, nausea, vomiting, inflammatory bowel disease, IBS, SIBO, heartburn), these symptoms are often caused by a gut microbiome that is imbalanced. There are two possible courses of action:

  1. Stool testing. Culture and sensitivity testing of a stool sample pinpoints exactly what is growing there and whether it is healthy or not. It also provides data about which anti-microbials will work best to tackle what you have and which of your good bacteria need to be restored.
  2. Presumptive treatment. Certain anti-microbials generally work well to remove unhealthy organisms and then probiotics and prebiotics are used to restore healthy flora.

Low levels of Omega 3 and/or Omega 6 fatty acids

While there is testing available for blood levels of Omega 3’s and 6’s, in most instances it makes more sense to simply supply these in supplemental form or try to increase intake through diet. The best food source for Omega 3 fatty acids is fish. The best food source for Omega 6 fatty acids is avocados. For most of us, we get far too many Omega 6 fatty acids in our diets. Processed plant oils are used in prepared foods and are high in Omega 6’s, as is commercial meat.

Oxidative Stress

What is oxidative stress? It is the burden of oxidation in your system that has the potential to damage your DNA and increase inflammation. Oxidative stress also damages sperm and eggs leading to fertility problems. Causes of oxidative stress include a poor diet, lack of exercise, low levels of antioxidant vitamins, exposure to various chemicals and environmental pollutants and high levels of mental or emotional stress. Reducing oxidative stress is largely through modifying certain diet and lifestyle factors. Consuming more plant-based foods, fruit, and vegetables, supplies anti-oxidants and bioflavonoids that reduce oxidative stress. Lifestyle factors like regular exercise and yoga help to reduce oxidative stress. Your body has it’s own internal anti-oxidant system known as NRF-2. Certain supplements like curcumin and ginseng have NRF-2 activation effects. In some conditions, this is desirable to activate NRF-2, in other situations it may be undesirable. It’s always best to discuss your supplementation with a naturopathic doctor.

Mitochondrial dysfunction

Think back to high school biology class, remember what mitochondria are? They are the powerhouse of every cell in your body. They generate energy for your cells to work. Mitochondria get damaged by environmental pollutants, oxidative stress, and aging. Certain antioxidants like CoEnzyme Q10 help your mitochondria to work better. Pyrroloquinoline quinone or PQQ helps your body generate new mitochondria. In fact, one study showed that supplementation with PQQ leads to lower blood levels of inflammatory markers like CRP and IL-6.

Hormonal Changes

Estrogen dominance is a relative imbalance between estrogen and progesterone. This imbalance may occur before or after menopause. Before menopause, it contributes to conditions like endometriosis. Because progesterone offsets the effects of estrogen, a healthy balance between these two hormones keeps inflammation in check. Estrogen dominance increases inflammation. Correcting hormone imbalance moderates inflammation.

Genetic tendencies

Although you cannot alter the genes that you inherit, you can influence how they are expressed (or not). Gene expression is affected by lifestyle factors like exercise, stress, diet, vitamins, minerals, and sleep.

Sleep quality

Impaired sleep quality is associated with greater inflammation in healthy adult men and women. Addressing factors like sleep hygiene, exercise, stress reduction, and supplementation to calm the nervous system enhances sleep quality.

Chronic Disease and Inflammation

Why is reducing inflammation important? Because inflammation is associated with most chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, COPD, diabetes and much more. Taking measures to reduce inflammation improves your quality of life and promotes longevity.

If you are looking for customized advice on how to lower inflammation or how to lower insulin or both, I can help. Schedule a free 15-minute discovery call or book a full initial visit online or by calling 416-481-0222.

By Dr. Pamela Frank, BSc(Hons), Naturopathic Doctor


Dr. Pamela Frank, BSc(Hons), Naturopathic Doctor

Dr. Pamela has been in practice as a naturopathic doctor in Toronto since 1999. She has been the recipient of numerous “Best Naturopath in Toronto” awards. She is registered with the College of Naturopaths of Ontario.

Dr. Pamela Frank uses a natural treatment approach that may include acupuncture, herbal medicine, nutrition, diet, vitamins, supplements, and other natural remedies to restore balance and provide long-term resolution of almost any health problem.

Insulin Resistance and Inflammation Research

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28474708

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28409320

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23935199

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28508879

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31629872

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31482617

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29223100

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28618992

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24231099

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31287027

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31387263

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25037581

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