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Cortisol vs. Insulin: How They Affect Adrenal Health

Recently I made a post that spoke about eliminating blood sugar cravings, and although you really don’t need to understand the physiology of what’s going on to achieve this, I thought it might interest you to know some of the basics of what’s going on when you eat refined foods.  As a reminder, I’m not expecting anyone to eat a perfect diet, as I personally don’t eat a perfect diet. 

One thing I don’t like is a healthcare professional telling their patients to do something that they personally don’t do.  So I’d be a hypocrite if I told you to never eat refined foods, when occasionally I’ll eat them.  But I do eat healthy most of the time, and don’t have any cravings towards sweets and carbs, which wasn’t the case a few years ago.

Anyway, insulin is secreted by the pancreas when the blood sugar becomes too high, while cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands when your blood sugar gets too low.  Let’s look at a common situation where a person eats a lot of refined foods throughout the day, and also goes more than a few hours without eating.  When this person eats a refined food, it gets absorbed into the bloodstream pretty quickly, which spikes up the blood sugar levels.  This causes a surge of insulin to be released from the pancreas, which in effect lowers the blood sugar levels.  If the blood sugar levels dip too low, such as when someone goes a long time without eating anything, then cortisol will be released to raise the blood sugar levels.  So for someone that eats refined foods and skips meals frequently, this creates a viscous cycle that puts a lot of stress on their body.

What are the potential consequences of eating this way?  Well, let’s first take a look at how this can affect the adrenal glands.  Constantly having this up and down activity in blood sugar levels will cause the adrenal glands to frequently secrete cortisol, which over time will stress out the adrenal glands.  Eventually this can lead to adrenal fatigue. 

Now this of course isn’t the only factor that affects the adrenals, as there are other lifestyle factors that can negatively affect the adrenal glands, such has having a lot of stress AND not doing a good job of managing it.  Not getting quality sleep can also stress out the adrenals, as is the case with many people who stay up late watching television, and then need to wake up early to get to work.  So eating poorly plays a big role in adrenal health, but it isn’t the only factor.

Now let’s take a look at the effect of secreting all of that insulin by frequently eating refined foods.  What happens is that over a period of time, the cells don’t become as sensitive to insulin, which can lead to insulin resistance.  Once again, I’m just covering this on a very basic level, and not trying to get too deep into the physiology.  If you really want to learn more about the physiology there are numerous books and resources on the internet you can check out. 

What is also important to understand is that the cells only have room for a small amount of glucose, so when you eat a lot of refined foods, most of this gets converted to triglycerides, which of course can lead to weight gain.  All of this really has a big effect on the entire endocrine system, and affects numerous hormones.   And this is one of the reasons why it can be difficult for people to lose weight, as sometimes it’s not just about eating well and exercising, but balancing the hormones of the endocrine system.

Don’t get me wrong, as it is important to eat well and exercise.  But if you are overweight, and diet and exercise doesn’t seem to help much, then this very well can be the reason why.  Dr. Janet Lang, who is also a chiropractor and teaches others about natural endocrine methods, talks about how “hormones are stronger than diet”, which is definitely true.  In other words, if you have an imbalance in your hormones, you can eat a perfect diet and exercise regularly and you won’t be able to lose weight. 

I’ll talk more about weight loss in the future, as I know this is a popular topic.  I just wanted to go over some of the basics as to what happens when a person eats refined foods frequently, and/or skips meals on a regular basis.  It takes years for the body to begin breaking down in someone with these habits, and is a big reason why many people will develop conditions such as Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.

The good news is that eating healthier and on a regular basis (about every two hours after eating breakfast) will help prevent this viscous cycle, and will greatly reduce the likelihood of developing adrenal fatigue and insulin resistance.  And if you already have these conditions, then eating right, along with following the other factors of health I mentioned in a previous post, will help a great deal in restoring your health.