The Role of Environmental Toxins on Insulin Resistance and Your Metabolic Health

Chances are pretty good that you, or someone you know, is walking around with a serious blood sugar problem. And what’s even more likely, is that neither of you knows it! It’s true! An estimated 50 percent of U.S. adults have diabetes or pre-diabetes.[1] And even more have other health conditions related to blood sugar imbalance or insulin resistance, such as PCOS or metabolic syndrome.

Over the past 25 years, there has been a significant increase in the occurrence of impaired glucose tolerance, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and endocrine disease. And one of the most common risk factors associated with these diseases – insulin resistance –  is also on the rise. One study found that as many as 4 in 10 adults ages 18 – 44 and 1 in 10 children and adolescents have insulin resistance.[2] [3]

But, surprise, insulin resistance isn’t all about sugar!

Increasing scientific research has connected insulin resistance with exposure to environmental toxins, making it more challenging than ever to ignore our growing toxic burden as a critical factor in the development of this resistance.

 

What is insulin resistance?

It is a condition in which the body’s cells become less responsive to the hormone insulin produced by the pancreas.[4]

Insulin plays a critical role in regulating the glucose (sugar) level in the bloodstream by signaling cells to take up glucose from the blood and use it for energy or store it for later use. In insulin resistance, the cells become less sensitive to insulin and are less able to respond to its signals to take up glucose from the bloodstream. As a result, glucose levels in the bloodstream remain elevated, and the pancreas may produce even more insulin to compensate.

Over time, this increased demand on the pancreas can lead to a decline in insulin production which can set the stage for more serious metabolic conditions like type 2 diabetes.[5]

 

insulin resistance

Causes of Insulin Resistance

It is a complex metabolic disorder with many causes, including genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors. Some of the most common causes of insulin resistance include:

  • Obesity: Excess weight, especially around the abdomen, can lead to insulin resistance.[6] Fat cells release hormones and other substances that interfere with insulin signaling, reducing insulin sensitivity.
  • Physical inactivity: Lack of physical activity can lead to muscle loss and reduced insulin sensitivity, making it more difficult for the body to regulate blood glucose levels.[7]
  • Diet: A diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugars and low in fiber and other nutrients can contribute to insulin resistance.[8]
  • Genetics: Insulin resistance and other metabolic conditions like type 2 diabetes tend to run in families, suggesting a genetic component.[9]
  • Aging: As we age, our bodies become less sensitive to insulin, increasing the risk of insulin resistance.[10]
  • Hormonal imbalances: Conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), thyroid disorders, and Cushing’s syndrome can interfere with insulin signaling, leading to insulin resistance.[11] [12] [13]
  • Sleep disorders: Lack of sleep or sleep apnea can disrupt hormone levels and contribute to insulin resistance.[14]
  • Inflammation: Chronic inflammation, which can result from conditions such as obesity, can interfere with insulin signaling and contribute to insulin resistance.[15]
  • Toxicants: Compounds termed endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) likely have an even more significant causal role in diabetes, insulin resistance, oxidative stress, and fatty liver disease.

The development of insulin resistance often results from a combination of interrelated factors. Identifying and addressing the root causes may improve insulin sensitivity.

 

insulin resistance

Symptoms of Insulin Resistance

A wide range of symptoms are common with insulin resistance, including the following:

  • High blood sugar levels
  • Fatigue
  • Hunger
  • Weight gain
  • Skin changes
  • High blood pressure
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

If you suspect you have insulin resistance, I encourage you to talk with your healthcare provider, who can help perform tests to confirm your diagnosis and provide appropriate treatment based on your needs. Tests worth asking for include fasting glucose AND insulin levels, HgA1c or glycosylated hemoglobin, which reveals the average blood sugars over the past three months.  You could also consider an insulin resistance score from a lab such as Cleveland Heart Labs or request a continuous glucose monitor for a short-term assessment of your diet and corresponding blood glucose.

 

Shanghai at sunset

The Role of Environmental Toxins on Insulin Resistance

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an estimated 37.3 million people in the U.S., approximately 11.3% of the population, has diabetes.[16] That has increased by nearly 20 million people in the past 25 years.

While it would be easy to look at those numbers and chalk up the increased rates of diabetes to increased consumption of sugar, higher rates of obesity, and a decline in exercise amongst Americans, they are only part of the contributing factors. Yet the correlation between chemical production and diabetes is so compelling it’s easy to recognize that environmental toxins present a far more significant contribution to diabetes disease progression.[17]

insulin resistance

 

Industrial skyline

Environmental Toxins

So, what are we referring to when discussing environmental toxins?

Environmental toxins are harmful substances in the environment and can negatively affect human health and ecosystems. These toxins can come from various sources, including industrial processes, agricultural practices, and natural occurrences.

Read more about what environmental toxicants are and how to avoid them in my previous blog. Also, check out my Environmental Deep Dive Masterclass for an even more comprehensive exploration into the places in your home where environmental toxicants may be lurking.

 

insulin resistance

The Role of Toxins on Our Metabolic Health

Many environmental toxins disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates hormones important for metabolic processes such as glucose metabolism and energy balance. Exposure to environmental toxins can have a range of adverse health effects, depending on the type and level of exposure, including oxidative stress and inflammation, which can further contribute to metabolic dysfunction.

Environmental toxins linked to metabolic health problems include:

1. Arsenic

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in soil, water, and air. It is also a common environmental contaminant, particularly in areas with high levels of arsenic in soil and groundwater.

The mechanisms by which arsenic contributes to metabolic dysfunction are not fully understood, but it is thought to interfere with glucose metabolism and insulin signaling.[18] Exposure to arsenic has been linked to various adverse health effects, including insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, oxidative stress, inflammation, and other metabolic disorders.

2. Dioxin

Dioxins are a group of highly toxic chemicals that are byproducts of specific industrial processes and can also be found in the environment, including in air, water, soil, and food. Dioxins have been found to increase the production of reactive oxygen species, increase the expression of genes that promote inflammation, and reduce the expression of genes that regulate adipose tissue metabolism.[19]

Exposure to dioxins has been linked to various adverse health effects, including oxidative stress, inflammation, and insulin resistance. Dioxins are also in the category below, Persistent Organic Pollutants.

3. Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are a group of toxic chemicals that are resistant to environmental degradation and can accumulate in the food chain. These include older organochlorine pesticides, many of which have been banned since the 1970s, PCBs, Dioxins, many flame retardants, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from air pollution are also POPs.

Studies show that POPs can increase the production of reactive oxygen species, interfere with adipose tissue function, and increase inflammation, all of which can damage cells and contribute to insulin resistance.[20]

4. BPA

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical widely used to produce plastics and other consumer products such as food packaging and water bottles. BPA has hormone-like properties that can disrupt the endocrine system.[21] Research indicates that BPA impairs insulin secretion by pancreatic beta cells, which can lead to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. Chemical substitutes such as Bisphenol S and Bisphenol AF may be just as problematic.

5. Phthalates

Phthalates are a group of chemicals commonly used to soften plastics in various consumer products, including toys, food packaging, and personal care products. These have endocrine-disrupting properties and can interfere with the function of hormones that regulate metabolic processes, causing oxidative stress and inflammation and interfering with adipose tissue function.[22]

Overall, environmental toxins can contribute to metabolic dysfunction by disrupting the endocrine system, promoting inflammation and oxidative stress, and interfering with metabolic processes such as glucose metabolism and energy balance. Limiting exposure to these toxins is critical for maintaining metabolic health.

 

Woman doing yoga at home with pet dog

Combating Insulin Resistance

There are several ways to combat insulin resistance, including:

1. Exercise

Regular exercise can help increase insulin sensitivity by increasing glucose uptake into the muscles for energy, reducing the need for insulin. Additionally, exercise can help reduce inflammation, contributing to insulin sensitivity. In particular, aerobic exercise, such as running, cycling, or walking, coupled with resistance training, is effective in improving insulin sensitivity.[23]

2. Diet

Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help improve insulin resistance. Focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, healthy fats, and minimizing or avoiding whole grains. And limit and ideally avoid highly processed foods, sugary beverages, and refined carbohydrates.

3. Limit toxin exposure

Toxins are everywhere, and we can’t always avoid them. But some simple strategies can help to limit your toxin exposure, including filtering your air and water, minimizing your use of plastic products, and replacing personal care products with cleaner alternatives. Try incorporating simple detoxification strategies into your daily life, like drinking lemon or carbonated mineral water (in glass bottles only), applying dry brushing, using castor oil packs, taking Epsom salt baths, or using saunas.

4. Weight management

Maintaining a healthy weight can help improve insulin resistance. Losing even just a small amount of weight can significantly benefit insulin sensitivity.  If you have a significant amount of weight to lose, work with an environmental and functional medicine practitioner to ensure you support your weight loss with adequate detoxification. This is important because as you lose weight, your fat cells shrink, pushing the environmental chemicals from your fat cells out into the bloodstream, where they can now interfere with normal body functions.

5. Sleep

Getting sufficient sleep is essential for overall health, including insulin sensitivity. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night.[24] In fact, a short sleep duration of fewer than 5 hours, poor sleep quality, and frequent nighttime arousals increase the risk of diabetes in people without a family history.

6. Stress management

Chronic stress can contribute to insulin resistance. Having insulin resistance and diabetes also cause distress. Knowing that those with insulin resistance and diabetes have worse outcomes if they are also struggling with depression and diabetes distress makes engaging in stress-reducing activities such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing exercises all the more critical for achieving optimal health.[25] [26]

7. Supplements

Several studied supplements help improve insulin sensitivity. Berberine is a favorite and is comparable to metformin’s efficacy.[27] The Spring Center’s Glycontrol supplement utilizes a robust blend of nutrients to help improve glucose levels and insulin sensitivity.

8. Medication

In some cases, medication may be necessary to help manage insulin resistance and should be done under the supervision of your healthcare provider to ensure it is appropriate for you.

The good news is that by combining lifestyle changes and possibly medication, you can manage insulin resistance and help avoid getting type 2 diabetes altogether.

 

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Resources

  1. “Statistics About Diabetes | ADA.” 28 Jul. 2022, https://diabetes.org/about-us/statistics/about-diabetes. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  2. “UAB researchers find that 40 percent of young American adults have ….” 20 Sep. 2021, https://www.uab.edu/news/research/item/12289-uab-researchers-find-that-40-percent-of-young-american-adults-have-insulin-resistance-and-cardiovascular-risk-factors. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  3. “Insulin resistance syndrome in children and adolescents – Nature.” 21 Jun. 2004, https://www.nature.com/articles/0802723. Accessed 11 Apr. 2023.
  4. “Insulin Resistance – StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507839/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  5. “Trends in insulin resistance: insights into mechanisms and … – Nature.” 6 Jul. 2022, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41392-022-01073-0. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  6. “Obesity, Insulin Resistance, and Type 2 Diabetes – NCBI.” 9 Oct. 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7553667/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  7. “Pathophysiology of Physical Inactivity-Dependent Insulin Resistance.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8516544/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  8. “Dietary support in insulin resistance: An overview of current scientific ….” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31756065/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  9. “Genetics of Insulin Resistance and the Metabolic Syndrome – PMC.” 16 Jun. 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4911377/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  10. “Insulin resistance with aging: effects of diet and exercise – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11103847/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  11. “Longitudinal Study of Insulin Resistance and Sex Hormones over ….” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2999972/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  12. “Insulin resistance and the polycystic ovary syndrome – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9408743/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  13. “Glucose Metabolism in Cushing Syndrome – PMC – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8130620/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  14. “Sleep disorders and the development of insulin resistance and obesity.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3767932/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  15. “Inflammation and insulin resistance – PMC – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1483173/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.
  16. “National Diabetes Statistics Report | Diabetes | CDC.” https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/data/statistics-report/index.html. Accessed 11 Apr. 2023.

Resources II

  1. “Is the Diabetes Epidemic Primarily Due to Toxins? – PMC – NCBI.” 3 Aug. 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4991654/. Accessed 11 Apr. 2023.
  2. “Arsenic: The Underrecognized Common Disease-inducing Toxin.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30881231/. Accessed 11 Apr. 2023.
  3. “Serum metabolic changes associated with dioxin exposure in a ….” 23 Jul. 2020, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32712422/. Accessed 11 Apr. 2023.
  4. “The role of persistent organic pollutants in the worldwide epidemic ….” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22214250/. Accessed 11 Apr. 2023.
  5. “Bisphenol A and Metabolic Diseases: Challenges for Occupational ….” 25 Aug. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5615496/. Accessed 11 Apr. 2023.
  6. “Phthalate exposure and metabolic effects: a systematic review of the ….” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412018313291. Accessed 11 Apr. 2023.
  7. “Resistance Exercise Versus Aerobic Exercise Combined with ….” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32957900/. Accessed 17 Apr. 2023.
  8. “Short Sleep Duration and Poor Sleep Quality Increase the Risk of ….” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3263910/. Accessed 17 Apr. 2023.
  9. “The association between Diabetes mellitus and Depression – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27453739/. Accessed 17 Apr. 2023.
  10. “Distress and Type 2 Diabetes Self-Care: Putting the Pieces Together.” 4 Oct. 2021, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32914829/. Accessed 17 Apr. 2023.
  11. “Glucose-lowering effect of berberine on type 2 diabetes – Frontiers.” 24 Oct. 2022, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2022.1015045/full. Accessed 11 Apr. 2023.