What Is Insulin Resistance?

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After years of struggling with my marathon period, I’ve googled literally everything in regards to “why the hell won’t my period stop?!” Never once did I stumble upon a post about Insulin Resistance or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Never once did my doctors recommend a diet change or mention Insulin Resistance. It took me forever to even get a diagnosis of PCOS, and still no mention of Insulin Resistance… but why? Polycystic Ovary and Insulin Resistance go hand in hand, but why don’t doctors talk about it?

One theory is, there is no profit in a diet change… but there is a profit in a prescription. It’s a shame really, but it is an unfortunate reality for many. What finally tipped me off and got me on the path to diet change was the mention of one drug… Metformin ‘is the first-line medication for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, particularly in people who are overweight. It is also used in the treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome. It works by decreasing glucose production by the liver and increasing the insulin sensitivity of body tissues’ (wikipedia

Since PCOS is a hormonal imbalance due to a blood sugar disregulation, it makes sense that Doctors would prescribe Metformin for PCOS. But why take a drug that stresses the liver (a very important organ, especially for blood sugar regulation), with potentially nasty side effects, when you can just change your diet? Easier said than done… TRUST ME I know this, as sugar and carbs are VERY ADDICTIVE. More on that later…

Many people have Insulin Resistance. Type 2 Diabetics and women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome for example. But what exactly is Insulin Resistance? First you should understand insulin…

What is Insulin?

Insulin is actually a hormone… When we eat, our body detects a rise in blood glucose in response to the food we just ate. Insulin then tells the cells to open up and let that glucose in, which is then used by our bodies to store glucose in our muscle and liver cells for later use. Without insulin, our cells would starve.  Insulin is secreted by the pancreas and binds to a receptor on the cell telling it to open up. This is similar to way a key opens a lock. When the ‘key’ has been used too much (or there is chronic inflammation), the lock starts to get a bit worn and the ‘key’ will no longer work. This is insulin resistance.

How Does Insulin Resistance Cause PCOS?

The ovaries produce our essential female hormones, including estrogen and progesterone. These cells also secrete a small amount of testosterone, which is essential for many bodily functions, including libido and bone formation. When we have too much insulin, it causes the ovaries to overproduce testosterone. Our bodies have a system in place which will prevent hormone levels from getting too high, but unfortunately this isn’t the case with testosterone because our bodies don’t anticipate insulin making testosterone levels higher. Our bodies were never meant to consume the amount of sugar that is typically consumed in this day and age. As a result, there’s nothing to prevent testosterone levels from spiraling out of control.

When it comes to hormones, 80% should be bound to cells and 20% should be free in the body. The ‘free’ hormones are generally the ones which cause problems. Excess levels of ‘free’ testosterone can:
– Get into hair follicles and make hair fall out (Thinning hair!)
– Settle in hair follicles in our face and make it produce thick dark hair (Pesky chin hair…)
– Get into skin glands and cause acne (Ugh!)

There is another hormone called the Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG), which acts as a testosterone ‘sponge’, binding to excess testosterone and preventing it from causing these annoying problems. Insulin resistance reduces the amount of SHBG, which then allows testosterone to run rampant.

You can think about insulin resistance as a naughty child. He has plugged the bath, turned the testosterone faucet on, snatched your sponges, and ran away calling ‘catch me if you can!’

Ok, so Insulin Resistance can cause PCOS, but What Causes Insulin Resistance?

What is PCOS?

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is a combination of symptoms that when all combined together creates a Syndrome. Women with PCOS typically have irregular or missed periods as a result of not ovulating. Although some women may develop cysts on their ovaries, many women do not.

Symptoms may include:

  • Weight gain: Many women with PCOS will have weight gain that is difficult to manage.
  • Fatigue
  • Unwanted hair growth (also known as hirsutism): Areas affected by excess hair growth may include the face, arms, back, chest, thumbs, toes, and abdomen.
  • Thinning hair on the head
  • Infertility: PCOS is a leading cause of female infertility.
  • Acne: Hormonal changes related to excess androgens can lead to oily skin and acne problems. Other skin changes such as the development of skin tags and darkened patches of skin can also be related to PCOS.
  • Mood changes: Having PCOS can increase the likelihood of mood swings, depression, and anxiety.
  • Pelvic pain: Pelvic pain may occur with periods, along with heavy bleeding.
  • Headaches
  • Sleep problems: Women with PCOS often report problems such as insomnia or poor sleep.
  • Abnormal Menstruation: Absence of menstruation, heavy menstruation, irregular menstruation and untimely spotting occur in women with PCOS.

The symptoms vary from woman to woman, but they all have one thing in common… They are all a hormonal imbalance due to a blood sugar disregulation.

High insulin triggers the ovaries to increase production of the androgen (male) hormones, testosterone and DHEA. We as women do normally produce these hormones, but in women with PCOS, testosterone and DHEA production is elevated. It is these elevated androgen hormones that bring about the typical symptoms of PCOS. Some 70% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance.

PCOS is not a condition one is born with, but a condition that develops due to environment interacting with genes. This includes what you eat, how often you exercise, stress levels, environmental toxins, synthetic hormones, etc.

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Not a happy uterus, PCOS makes…

My Story

First Blog post – My Story

IMG_0374_2I got my period the summer before 6th grade. It was crampy, it was bloody, and my digestive system was a mess. Since then, my periods were always heavy, always clotty, always painful and always accompanied with digestive distress. The only thing that was normal was that they were consistent. Once a month for 7 days. I also consistently made a mess of myself, because pads… and Middle School… I’d often bring a change of clothes and a sweater to tie around my waist, because making a mess of myself was inevitable during my heavy days. When I finally figured out tampons, it was still messy. I stocked up on the largest tampons I could find, Playtex Ultra (the size up after super plus). On my heavy days, they lasted about 30-45 minutes before they would self eject. (Sorry for the visual, but it’s just a reality of the heaviness) I missed school often because I would be laying in the shower until the water ran cold, doubled over with cramps, or hiding in the nurse office bathroom waiting for my pants to dry after cleaning them in the sink. 

As a college student, I chose to take birth control because I was told it would help me feel better, lighten my flow and make the period all around more manageable. After starting the pill, my periods did lighten a bit, but what hormone balance I had went out the window. I started dealing with extreme anxiety and depression, which is something I had never experienced. After using the pill for a while and realizing what it was doing to me, I decided to stop taking it. The anxiety and depression lessened some, but thats when “the change” happened… I started gaining weight, getting acne, losing my hair, growing hair on my face and body… but the worst of it was the periods… the never ending periods. It started out like this: my periods would last several days past my 7 day norm, each time getting a little longer. Next thing I knew I was actively bleeding for a month. As they got longer, they got lighter with a few heavy days here and there.

I decided to do some research and I learned all about the synthetic hormones in the pill that get trapped in the body, and how the body identifies chemicals and synthetics as xenoestrogens in the body, which can easily lead to estrogen dominance.  While a perpetually broke college student, I started switching my personal care products to natural products and shopping at the 1 natural grocery store we had in town at the time, which almost required a third job!

I’ve visited several different OBGYNs with hopes that they will find the cause and fix me, only for all of them to suggest that I go back on the pill… Really? Here I am telling you what the pill did to me and why I stopped taking it, and the only suggestion you have for me is to start taking it again?! All the blood work looks normal, they’d say. You don’t have any cysts, so it can’t be PCOS… (which I’ve since learned that you don’t need to have cysts to have PCOS) I admit, after some frustration, I tried it again, only to come to the same conclusion. This pill is ruining my body. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… 

I begged for more blood work, I begged for them to find the cause of this issue and not to just give me a pill, but my symptoms were always brushed off. I want to correct this, but the only options I had caused suffering either way. Not acceptable. 

This was sometime in 2010, I decided to take matters into my own hands and I fell into the world of natural health. I’ve learned so much about what toxic substances do to the body and how imperative it is to avoid toxins and synthetics. We get inundated daily with substance that are not natural and that the body cannot effectively identify or process. From anything and everything that touches our skin (soap, shampoos, lotions, cleaners), to the pesticide and hormone laden food we eat, the “freshened with chemicals” air we breath and the pills we pop for every little discomfort.  

Many of these toxins are treated as hormones in the body, leading to extreme hormonal imbalances which can spiral into all sorts of issues like infertility or endocrine disorders. Now here we are full of toxins and hormone imposters… what’s a liver to do? Well the liver is supposed to remove these toxins from our bodies. But now we’re stuffing our faces with heavily processed sugar rich foods that have no nutritional value, robbing the body of essential nutrients, minerals and fiber that it needs to effectively remove these toxins and hormones from the body via digestion. So they just build up in the body, stored in fat cells. It’s no wonder that as we age, more and more health issues present themselves. 

Over the years the bleeding just lasted longer and longer. My longest bleed was 7 months long. I had tried several things during my crunchy natural journey… supplements, organic food, switching my products, progesterone creams, fasting, dieting, juicing… etc. I’ve done countless hours of research and determined that I am estrogen dominant. Side note: I also took a ton of acetaminophen as a child due to chronic migraines which could have contributed to my inability to effectively eliminate the estrogens. As the bleeding got worse, so did my ability to metabolize alcohol. After 1 drink, I have a migraine. After 2 or 3, instant hangover. Then in 2016 I got idiopathic pancreatitis. I had already stopped drinking and was never a frequent or heavy drinker. It was then that I found Young Living Essential Oils, which helped me tremendously through the pancreatitis. What they did for me sold me hard on essential oils, but that’s another story in itself. 

After overcoming pancreatitis, I started researching ways to reduce estrogen dominance. I found an article about an estrogen flush for men and started researching the ingredients for that and ultimately found a supplement called Estrosense at Whole Foods. After a few weeks of taking it, my 7 month marathon period stopped. Then 2 weeks later I had a normal (albeit extremely heavy) period. 

This was the closest to normal I’ve gotten to in over 7 years, but unfortunately it didn’t last. Even while continuing to take the supplements, the marathon periods came back. During that time, I was working on making the move to Colorado, so once again… I just ignored it and tried to live life.

After settling into my new life here, I decided to try out a Colorado doctor, where I FINALLY got a diagnosis. The official diagnosis is “Disordered Proliferative Endometrium” which is a form of endometrial hyperplasia or abnormal cell growth. Thankfully we’ve ruled out cancerous cell growth with a biopsy, however the high amounts of estrogen still put me at greater risk of breast cancer. Again, I was told that I do not have PCOS (Polycycstic Ovarian Syndrome) because I do not have any cysts. I am not convinced of this because I have almost all of the symptoms. (abnormal menstruation, absence of menstruation, heavy menstruation, irregular menstruation, short and light menstruation, or spotting, obesity, overweight, weight gain, inability to lose weight, acne or oily skin, infertility, depression, loss of hair, unwanted hair) Another thing about PCOS is that most who have it, have insulin resistance. 

The next step for me from my doctor was to have a D&C (Dilation and Curettage) and to begin taking the diabetic drug Metformin, which is a diabetic drug that is often prescribed to those with PCOS… While hesitant, I was leaning towards going this route however it was delayed due to lack of insurance during a job change. In that time, I’ve decided to try and take control of my diet by trying a healthy Ketogenic diet. I’ve always struggled to maintain a healthy diet and lose weight, even knowing my poor diet was likely contributing with my poor health. I’d always end up defeated because no matter what “diet” I did, the weight would never come off. I’ve chosen the Ketogenic diet in order to reduce my insulin swings from my former high carb, high sugar typical American lifestyle. Losing some weight will also reduce estrogen that is stored in the fat cells. There will be future posts about my struggles and experience with a Ketogenic diet. I am also looking to visit a Function Medicine Practitioner in the near future and plan to share my experience with this as well.

Please note: this is not a blog about the Ketogenic diet, it is just something that I am trying to help balance my hormones. If you are looking for Keto resources, I can gladly point you in the direction of some helpful resources I am using. I will be discussing various topics in my future posts such as supplements, essential oils, personal care products, DIYs, yoga, chemicals.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story and I hope to bring value and resources to the many other women who are struggling. Please join me on the Pursuit of Hormonal Balance.

– Gina