Did you know:
A healthy response to insulin could be the difference between debilitating fatigue and high levels of energy?
Insulin was discovered in 1922 by Dr. Frederick Banting. Nearly 100 years later, we’re still figuring out the effects this hormone has on your health and energy.
You likely know insulin as the medication that those with diabetes need to inject. That would be correct, but there’s so much more to insulin! Especially the ways in which it can help you overcome fatigue.
What is insulin?
Insulin is a hormone produced by the beta cells found inside of your pancreas. When you eat an apple, the carbohydrates found in that apple are broken down into simple sugars. These sugars move through your digestive tract and into your bloodstream. When your body detects a rise in blood sugar (like after you eat an apple) it secretes insulin.
One way to think of insulin is like a traffic warden. Instead of directing traffic, it directs sugar. Insulin is needed to move sugar out of your blood (where it can be quite damaging to your body) and into your liver, fat, or muscle cells where it can be used as energy. After eating that apple, your body wants to move the sugar from the blood and into muscle tissue. Insulin gets that job done. Insulin takes sugar by the hand, knocks on the door of your cells and escorts the sugar into the cell.
In type 1 diabetes, your body destroys the beta cells of the pancreas. This results in an absolute inability for your body to ever create insulin again. In type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes, your cells develop something called insulin resistance.
In insulin resistance, your cells fail to respond to the signals given out by insulin. Insulin still takes sugar by the hand and knocks on the door to your cells. But instead of opening its doors and allowing the sugar to enter, in insulin resistance, the cells don’t answer.
Insulin resistance is a little like the boy who cried wolf. Your cells get tired of insulin constantly knocking on their door. So, they start to ignore the knocks. This results in sugar remaining in your blood. It is unable to be taken up into your cells.
When sugar is not taken up by your cells, you lack a source of energy for the cell. This can result in lowered energy levels. This is why those who are diabetic or pre-diabetic often cite fatigue as one of their main symptoms. If your body’s cells are being deprived of an energy source, you’re going to feel tired.
Why do you feel fatigue after eating – Part I
When your body digests protein, protein molecules are broken down into amino acids. When your body digests fat, fat molecules are broken down into fatty acids. When your body digests carbohydrates, carbohydrate molecules are broken down into sugars.
Which macronutrient do you think exerts the greatest effect on your blood sugar?
If you said carbohydrates, you’d be correct. Since carbohydrates are broken down into sugars, they have a more significant effect on your blood sugar than proteins or fats. In response to the elevation of blood sugar, your body needs to increase the amount of insulin excreted to get the sugar out of your blood and into your cells.
The key takeaway here is that carbohydrates increase insulin secretion.
If you’re like most citizens in North America, your body is excreting too much insulin and struggling to balance its blood sugar. This is known as type 1.5 diabetes or, pre-diabetes. In Canada, over 6 million people (that’s 1 in 6 people!) are thought to have prediabetes. (1) In the United States, 84 million people are prediabetic (that’s 1 in 4 people!). (2)
Do you know what the main symptom of pre-diabetes is? (3)
Do you know what will make both your fatigue and insulin resistance/pre-diabetes worse?
Continued high consumption of carbohydrates.
But it’s not as simple as eating complex carbohydrates and avoiding refined or processed carbohydrates. Common knowledge would lead you to believe that Oreos will exert a negative effect on your blood sugar while whole grain oats will not. It is not this simple. Each of you tolerates carbohydrates differently. That means that while Oreos may send your blood sugar soaring, your friend could have balanced blood sugar while eating them. Alternatively, your blood sugar might be stable after eating whole grain oats but your friends could be completely imbalanced.
In this article, I discuss how to find out which carbohydrates are causing an imbalance in your blood sugar and thus causing you to feel fatigued. If you suffer from fatigue, you will want to remove or eat sparingly, the foods that cause the greatest fluctuations in your blood sugar.
Once you’ve identified the carbohydrate sources causing your blood sugar fluctuations, it’s time to remove them. You can replace them with other carbohydrates that you tolerate well. Or, you can replace them with fat and/or protein sources. The fat or proteins sources will have an even greater stabilizing effect on your blood sugar. So, if it suits your palate, I’d recommend going this route. Save the carbohydrates for special occasions.
Why do you feel fatigue after eating – Part II
There is another phenomenon that can occur after eating called rebound or reactive hypoglycemia. Rebound hypoglycemia could very well be why you experience fatigue shortly after eating. Rebound/reactive hypoglycemia describes the experience of low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) within four hours after eating. (4) You may know this phenomenon as a sugar crash. Symptoms of rebound hypoglycemia typically include: (5)
- Unclear thinking
You may know the above symptoms as being “hangry”. Hangry feelings typically occur if you have not eaten for a long period of time. But in rebound hypoglycemia, the hangry feelings occur shortly after eating. Rebound hypoglycemia typically occurs after eating a meal that is high in carbohydrates. That fatigue you feel after a Thanksgiving feast has less to do with tryptophan in the turkey and more to do with rebound hypoglycemia. This occurs because of the high carbohydrate content in the average North American Thanksgiving feast.
After eating a meal with lots of carbohydrates, you will experience a rise in blood sugar levels. To compensate for the rise in blood sugar, your body will excrete a large amount of insulin. Sometimes, the insulin response by your body is too much. In these moments, too much sugar is moved from your blood and into your cells by insulin. The result is low levels of blood sugar.
The main cause of reactive/rebound hypoglycemia is eating a meal with too many carbohydrates. There are, however, other genetic causes that could predispose you to this phenomenon including:
- Hormonal imbalances
- Adrenal fatigue or hypocortisolism
- Dumping syndrome
- This occurs in about 15% of people who have had stomach surgery.
- H-pylori infections (7)
- Diabetes and pre-diabetes
To best combat fatigue caused by rebound hypoglycemia, I recommend following the below recommendations:
- Avoid or limit your intake of refined sugars
- Exercise regularly
- Excercise helps to control the amount of insulin released by your cells.
- Combine carbohydrate sources with fats or proteins
- Proteins and fats have a stabilizing effect on blood sugar levels. They do not cause spikes in blood sugar readings like carbohydrates.
- By ensuring you combine carbohydrate sources with protein or fat sources, you lessen the spike in insulin. In turn, this reduces the chance of you experiencing fatigue and hypoglycemia.
- Identify which carbohydrate sources cause the largest spike in your blood sugar levels.
- Consume foods high in fiber
- Foods with a high fiber content have a stabilizing effect on your blood sugar
- Adopt a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet
- Some of you will be incredibly intolerant to carbohydrate sources. No matter what form the carbohydrates come in. For this demographic, I recommend following a low-carb or ketogenic diet.
- This post identifies all you need to know about a ketogenic diet.
How to ensure your food isn’t causing fatigue
If you experience fatigue after eating, it’s likely that your body is struggling to maintain blood sugar balance. I recommend performing a carbohydrate tolerance test on any foods you suspect are causing you to feel fatigued. If your schedule doesn’t allow you the time to perform such testing, you can start by substituting carbohydrate sources for fat or protein sources.
At your next dinner, pay close attention to the types of food on your plate. Try to have 75% of your plate be covered by protein and/or fat sources. If you notice that the majority of your plate is covered by carbohydrate sources (fruits, vegetable, grains, etc.), try to include more fat sources at your future meals. Doing this will help decrease the spike in your blood sugar. In turn, this will result in higher energy levels overall.
Ok, now you know how to keep your food from making you fatigued!
It’s time to hear from you.
What foods make you feel tired?
What changes did you make to your diet to feel more energized?
Also published on Medium.