REVERSING METABOLIC DISEASE: Natural Remedies for Insulin Resistance, Belly Fat Accumulation, Dietary Hormone Disruptors
One obvious sign of the metabolic syndrome epidemic is the fact that more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight and about half are obese.1 Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that include high blood pressure, insulin resistance, elevated waist-to-hip ratio, and dyslipidemia (an unhealthy imbalance of blood lipid levels and triglycerides). If you have three or more of these symptoms, you already fall within this syndrome’s category, alongside 23 percent of other American adults. Together, this constellation increases the risk of developing disabling, and even deadly, conditions such as diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, the rates of which have escalated worldwide.
Not all body fat is the same. Some body fat is brown and some white, and the former is healthier than the latter. But the question of where fat tissue gathers takes the discussion to the next level. Abdominal obesity, also known as belly fat, increases the risk of developing diabetes or cardiovascular disease, including stroke. Belly fat is the single most significant indicator of metabolic syndrome, itself an independent risk factor for all-cause mortality that’s stronger than smoking.
The long-term consequences of a disordered metabolism include promoting the conditions that drive atherosclerosis. But there are simple changes you can make to your diet that can profoundly alter your metabolic trajectory and reduce your inflammatory load and propensity toward fat generation and storage. These changes will also help you regenerate cells that are constantly being damaged by exposure to toxins, chemicals, and stress-inducing behaviors.
In the Old Paradigm, metabolic disorders were treated with a combination of palliative, symptom-reducing drugs and often superficial lifestyle and dietary recommendations, the latter of which are based on outdated nutritional concepts, such as eating more complex carbs (whole grains) versus simple ones. Metabolic syndrome is an optimal example of a chronic disease category that can be mitigated and reversed through diet, lifestyle choices, and a healthier response to stress.
Conditions Linked to Metabolic Syndrome
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder that develops when the host’s own immune system responds to injury in the beta cells in the pancreas. While there is a genetic component to Type 1 diabetes disease susceptibility, other factors, including chemical exposure, microbial imbalance, food intolerances and allergies, and stress, are influences that can induce a loss of immunlogical self-tolerance and overwhelm the body’s innate regenerative repair mechanism. When the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas can’t keep up with the higher cell turnover required, it can lead to organ damage. Without insulin, glucose will not get into your cells. Instead of fueling your metabolism, the glucose accumulates in the blood, binding to proteins and lipids and leading to the production of highly tissue-damaging glycation end products. Approximately 5 percent of diabetes cases are Type 1, where the damage to the pancreas is addressed medically with synthetic insulin replacement therapy. While metabolic syndrome is commonly considered to be linked to Type 2 diabetes, it also occurs in about one in three people with Type 1 diabetes.2
Type 2 diabetes is often identified as being caused by lifestyle factors–eating the wrong kinds of foods and at quantities beyond the body’s capacity to process glucose in a healthy way. When these lifestyle conditions persist, the cells’ insulin receptors develop lowered sensitivity, reducing how much glucose can enter while simultaneously leaving excess glucose and insulin to accumulate in the blood. This is insulin resistance. When glucose can’t enter cells, it remains in the blood, creating a rise in blood sugar. Excessive blood sugar and its glycation end products cause damage to our tissue, particularly to the lining of the blood vessels. The pancreas thinks, “Ah, there’s too much glucose in the blood. Better tell the beta cells to produce more insulin and whisk that glucose into the cells.” The cells then become even more resistant to insulin, creating a vicious cycle, because now your insulin levels are so high that, if left unaddressed, they can disrupt the functioning of your heart, brain, and hormones. Insulin resistance can also interfere with satiety, often leading to increased appetite, which compounds the problem.
Of the 30.3 million Americans who have diabetes, about 95 percent are Type 2. That’s not the worst news, though. When the cycle of rising blood sugar and insulin production continues over time, the beta cells can become exhausted and lose their ability to produce insulin completely. This condition, known as “double diabetes,” is marked by beta cell damage, lower insulin production, high blood sugar, and insulin resistance. Throw in synthetic insulin and oral antidiabetic drugs,3 both of which have been found, in some cases, to increase or accelerate metabolic disturbances linked to higher cardiac mortality,4 and a downward cycle is created that can be hard to overcome.
Prediabetes occurs when blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes. Technically, a diagnosis of prediabetes is based5 on blood tests showing that a blood biomarker of glycation known as A1c is within the range of 5.7 percent to 6.4 percent. If you are at 6.5 percent or higher, you would be categorized as prediabetic. A jaw-dropping 84.1 million Americans fall within the prediabetic diagnostic category. The global statistics are far more alarming: close to half a billion people will be diagnosed with the condition by 2030, potentially representing health liabilities in the trillions of dollars.6
Of all the drugs that are prescribed for diabetes, metformin (Glucophage) is far and away the most popular. In the short term, metformin is effective at lowering blood sugar. But it’s unclear whether metformin achieves the longer-term goal of reducing heart attack risk and all-cause mortality. Over time, doctors are prone to prescribing higher and higher doses to maintain blood sugar levels, often combining it with other drugs known as sulfonylureas. But that’s not a sustainable solution either. A study by the University Group Diabetes Program (UDGP) showed that diabetics who took the sulfonylurea tolbutamide suffered two and a half times the death rate compared to people who were controlling their diabetes through diet alone.7 A third class of drugs, known as thiazolidinediones, also appears to hasten mortality. A review of 42 different studies shows a 43 percent increase in heart attacks for people taking Avandia (a thiazolidinedione) and a 64 percent increase in death from heart disease when compared to people who were given a placebo.
Moreover, people who take metformin are sometimes tempted to believe that the drug is a safety net that allows them to eat whatever they want. This can lead doctors to note a failure of the diet and prescribe more drugs.
The New Metabolic Disorders Paradigm
Metabolic disease is our body’s attempt to deal with the onslaught of a radically inappropriate diet, a vast array of toxicant exposures, inactivity, and persistent, health-degrading stress. Perhaps the most exciting finding of the New Biology is that lifestyle factors are the primary cause and therefore can be a cure for diseases like metabolic syndrome. By identifying and removing the causes, we activate the full potential of our default healing state of ceaseless regeneration.
Once you switch to an ancestral diet, introduce herbal remedies, and regularly practice intentional movement, insulin resistance can go completely put into remission. High blood pressure and high blood sugar will come down, lipid levels will normalize, and excess belly fat will melt away. Following this approach, insulin-dependent patients with Type 2 and, in some cases, Type 1 diabetes have been shown to gradually reduce their dependence on synthetic insulin. While much of this is anecdotal and yet to be proven in clinical trials, the plausibility of these cases is affirmed by a growing body of research showing that the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas can and do regenerate, especially when utilizing natural substances such as chard, bitter gourd, or curcumin.8
Toxicants and the Insulin Resistance Connection
Anyone at risk for metabolic disorders is immediately told to reduce their intake of fats and sugars. But that advice is far too general, and it’s misleading. Some fats and simple carbohydrate sources can be exceptionally good for the metabolically disordered. If you want to improve your blood sugar, or if you simply want to shrink some belly fat, you could see concrete results simply by dramatically reducing the following.
The Old Paradigm encouraged the consumption of whole grains. The New Biology reminds us that the seeds of cereal grasses are incompatible with the ancestral diet designed to keep our metabolism in balance.
Wheat disrupts the metabolism by generating insulin resistance. Wheat starch is composed of approximately 75 percent amylopectin, which has been demonstrated to be particularly effective at inducing insulin resistance.9 This is the reason that wheat bread, according to statistics produced by Harvard Health Publishing, is higher on the glycemic index than white sugar.10 In addition, wheat disrupts the biological activity of the satiety hormone leptin. Leptin is produced by fat cells that travel through the bloodstream to the brain with the message for the body to stop eating. Wheat lectin, however, can bind to and antagonize the leptin receptors in your brain, reducing leptin’s appetite-reducing effects and leading to leptin resistance. That’s one reason wheat-based bread, pasta, cereal, crackers, and sweet-baked goods leave you hungrier after you’ve consumed them.
All of us, especially people at risk for metabolic disorders, should avoid excess sugar. But not all sugars are the same. Fructose, which means “fruit sugar” in Latin, is pure and health-giving if it comes nestled within its raw, organic form of whole fruit.
But let’s be candid. We are not suffering from an epidemic of people overeating fresh fruit. Quite to the contrary: we have a deficiency in the consumption of fresh, raw, organic fruit. Keep in mind that food is not just an energy source but also information and software for your body. Fruit contains wholesome molecules full of vitamins, fiber, plant stem cells, and antioxidants and delivers biologically indispensable information that is especially nourishing to the the mammalian cardiovascular and reproductive systems. This industrially processed fructose may be as addictive as alcohol,11 and perhaps even morphine.12
According to USDA research into major trends in U.S. food consumption patterns during 1970-2005, we now consume fructose at the rate of at least 50 pounds a year. The biggest culprits are sugar and corn syrup (which is sometimes misleadingly labeled “corn sugar”), but pasteurized fruit juices are also a hidden threat, as they continue to be adulterated with additional sugar or HFCS.
Because high-fructose corn syrup contains free-form monosaccharides of fructose and glucose, it cannot be considered biologically equivalent to sucrose, which has a glycosidic bond that links the fructose and glucose together and slows its breakdown in the body.
Fructose can easily be converted into ethanol with a pinch of yeast in order to make alcoholic beverages. It bears great resemblance to alcohol (ethanol) in its capability of stimulating dopamine production in the brain. It also shares similar metabolic pathways and effects on the liver. So toxic is “purified” fructose that at GreenMedInfo.com, we have indexed research on over 70 adverse health effects associated with its excessive consumption.
The omnipresent ingredient of monosodium glutamate (MSG) in modern mass-market food takes advantage of our biologically hardwired taste receptors, particularly those that perceive savory flavors. The “Yummy!” sensation that occurs immediately after ingesting an MSG-laced morsel is the sensation the Japanese call umami (savoriness), which the Japanese consider to be one of the five basic flavors.
I consider MSG more of an addictive drug than a food additive, a concept that a growing body of research supports.14 Our bodies, which have evolved complex sensorial and cognitive pathways to determine whether something is good or bad for us based on appearance, taste, and smell, are increasingly being chemically manipulated. MSG tricks our taste buds into finding a nutritionally vapid substance loaded with semi-synthetic ingredients designed to be ravishingly delicious. Inevitably, over time, real food appears less attractive and less satisfying of our cravings.
Technically, MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, a naturally occurring nonessential amino acid. Glutamic acid-rich foods include wheat, dairy, corn, soy, and seafood. The problem is that when you isolate a single amino acid out of a complex food and increase the concentration to unnatural proportions, the resulting glutamic acid can have devastating health effects, not the least of which is an insatiable appetite for more of the very same chemical stimulating the craving.
Beyond MSG’s addictive qualities, research from the U.S. National Library of Medicine highlights the connection between MSG and obesity. While excessive food cravings caused by MSG’s taste-enhancing effects figure into this relationship, MSG may directly cause brain lesions, insulin resistance, and leptin resistance.15 Therefore, MSG can no longer be considered simply a flavor enhancer. It’s an intrinsically harmful chemical that can disrupt your hormones and actively contribute to metabolic syndrome, obesity, fatty liver, and dysregulated blood lipids, as well as a wide range of neurological problems.16
Bisphenol A (BPA)
If you’re trying to lose weight, especially around the middle, first, look inside your pantry. Toxicant-laden processed and packaged food can lead to weight gain, as can their means of being stored. Food and drinks stored in thin, clear, shatter-resistant plastic containers or cans may provide exposure to BPA, an industrial chemical that’s linked to obesity and metabolic syndrome. BPA is found almost everywhere, but it leaches into foods primarily through contact with containers made with the chemical. Other BPA sources include PVC piping, plastic dinnerware, compact disks, toys, dental sealants, and medical devices. It’s found in virtually all currency throughout the world, as well as cash register receipts issued on thermal paper.
BPA is known to disrupt the human endocrine system, which regulates hormones like insulin and leptin. A Kaiser Permanente study has found that girls between 9 and 12 years of age with higher-than-average levels of BPA in their urine were twice as likely to be obese compared to girls with lower levels.17 This study confirms findings from earlier animal studies that high BPA levels can increase the risk of weight gain and obesity.
Natural Ways to Reduce Insulin Resistance
Several plant compounds, including many found within common foods, can stimulate your pancreas’s regenerative process.
The medical community has invested heavily in researching and developing stem-cell therapies, transplants of islets (groups of pancreatic cells that produce hormones), and an assortment of synthetic drugs. Yet an effective treatment–and even a possible cure–for metabolic disorders might be sitting on your kitchen shelves or growing in your backyard garden as we speak.
One of the primary ways that natural alternatives to metformin and other diabetes drugs work is through restoring your cells’ sensitivity to insulin, and in some cases they pull double duty as beta cell regenerators (helping to spark back up the body’s insulin production). When taken in tandem with an ancestral diet and lifestyle and under the care of a licensed health professional, it’s possible they can eventually replace diabetes drugs or, better still, help keep blood sugar so steady that they won’t be needed in the first place.
1. Turmeric. In a groundbreaking study published in the American Diabetes Association’s journal, Diabetes Care,18 240 prediabetic adult patients were given either 250 milligrams of curcumin or a placebo every day. After nine months, none of the participants taking curcumin had developed diabetes, but 16.4 percent of the placebo group had, suggesting that curcumin was 100 percent effective at preventing Type 2 diabetes.
2. Ginger. In a 2014 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 88 volunteers with diabetes were divided into two groups. Every day one group received a placebo while the other received three one-gram capsules of ginger powder. After eight weeks, the ginger group reduced their fasting blood sugar by 10.5 percent, but the placebo group increased their fasting blood sugar by 21 percent. In addition, insulin sensitivity increased significantly more in the ginger group.19 In another study, researchers demonstrated that 1,600 milligrams per day of ginger improves eight markers of diabetes, including insulin sensitivity.20 Since 1,600 milligrams amounts to about a quarter teaspoon, the results show you don’t necessarily need a high dose to get impressive results.
3. Cinnamon. Cinnamon has been used for millennia as both a spice and a “warming” medicine to improve the blood. The Journal of Medicinal Food published a meta-analysis of eight studies that concluded that cinnamon (or cinnamon extract) lowers fasting blood sugar levels.21 One way it works is by keeping your stomach from emptying too quickly after eating. Sprinkling just a half-teaspoon a day onto your meals or into your smoothies can reduce blood sugar levels, even if you have Type 2 diabetes.22 Look for cinnamon labeled as Ceylon cinnamon, from the ancient name for Sri Lanka (Ceylon), where it was originally harvested. Anything else is likely not cinnamon at all but cassia, a mere cousin to real cinnamon.
4. Olive leaf extract. University of Auckland researchers proved that olive leaf extract increases insulin sensitivity. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 46 overweight men were divided into two groups. One group received capsules containing olive leaf extract, and the other group received a placebo. After 12 weeks, olive leaf extract lowered insulin resistance by an average of 15 percent. It also increased the productivity of the insulin-generating cells in the pancreas by 28 percent. Supplementing with olive leaf extract yielded results “comparable to common diabetic therapeutics (particularly metformin).” 23
5. Berries. If your meal includes berries, your body will need less insulin after eating. In a study of healthy women in Finland, volunteers were given white and rye bread to eat, either with or without a selection of pureed berries. The glucose level of the women who ate the plain bread spiked quickly after eating, but the women who ate the bread with berries had a much lower spike in their after-meal blood sugar.24
6. Black seed (Nigella sativa). Black seed is also known as Roman coriander, black sesame, black cumin, and black caraway. Just two grams of black seed each day can significantly reduce blood sugar and glycation end-product formation. The same dose can also improve insulin resistance.25
7. Spirulina and soy. Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that’s an excellent source of protein, calcium, iron, and magnesium. It can be eaten as a food, though in the United States, it’s most often consumed in powder form and added to smoothies or shakes. In a study in Cameroon, spirulina and soy powder went head-to-head, as researchers tested which is better at controlling insulin sensitivity. In this randomized study consisting of volunteers suffering from insulin resistance related to treatment with antiretroviral drugs they were taking, one group received 19 grams of spirulina a day for eight weeks, while the other received 19 grams of soy. At the end of the trial, the soy group increased its insulin sensitivity by 60 percent, which is relatively good, but the spirulina group’s insulin sensitivity leaped by an average of 224.7 percent. And although 69 percent of the soy volunteers experienced increased sensitivity to insulin–which, again, is relatively good–all the volunteers in the spirulina group saw an improvement. 26 This is a strong endorsement of spirulina’s healing power, even when it’s under an extreme challenge such as living with adverse effects related to taking HIV drugs.
8. Berberine. Perhaps the bitterness of berberine, a compound found in the roots of plants like goldenseal and barberry, is a clue to its effectiveness in stabilizing blood sugar. In a Chinese study of 36 patients, scientists found that three months of treatment with berberine was just as effective as metformin in bringing down blood sugar.27 It should be noted that special caution should be taken with herbs like berberine, which, while generally far safer than pharmaceutical compounds, are not without side effects, and therefore should be used under the guidance of a medical herbalist or experienced integrative medical practitioner.
9. Resistant starches. Unlike other foods in their class, resistant starches are far lower on the glycemic index because they are broken down slowly in the large intestine. This “resistance” to digestion means that they are unlikely to cause spikes in blood sugar. And they have time to ferment, giving the beneficial gut bacteria of your microbiome an opportunity to flourish. As a source of fermentable fiber, resistant starches can help improve insulin sensitivity28 and reduce body fat.29
A Final Word about Belly Fat
Nature has made us in a glorious variety of shapes and sizes, and those sizes can sometimes change with age. Particularly as you get older, you might develop more fat around the hips and thighs or find it harder to keep weight off. Within the bounds of moderation, these developments are healthy and normal, and you do not need to be small and slender to be healthy, but it is crucial to watch out for excess belly fat.
When you remove processed food, processed fructose and high-fructose corn syrup, wheat, and MSG from your diet, or when you prevent the accumulation of petrochemicals like BPA in your body from food or other sources, your reward may be a leaner belly, lower blood sugar, and a much better shot at staying free of disease into a healthy, lively old age.
To help make it a little easier to maintain a healthy level of belly fat and regulate your blood sugar, I offer the following tested strategies.
1. Learn to Fast
Many people find traditional fasting difficult and not sustainable. Research has shown, however, that you can receive the benefits of fasting without taking things to an extreme. University of Florida researchers have come up with what’s known as the feast-or-famine diet. It involves alternating one day of eating about 175 percent of your normal caloric intake (“feasting”) with one day of eating 25 percent of your usual calories (“fasting”). An average man would generally eat about 4,550 calories on feast days and 650 on fast days, and most women would eat a little bit less. Put the feasting and fasting days together, and your average number of calories is about what it would usually be. But it’s the timing that makes all the difference.30
One study examining the effects of the feast-or-famine diet found that the participants’ insulin levels significantly decreased after 10 weeks. If you’re trying to reduce your blood sugar, feast-or-famine could be a good way to do it. On feast days, load up on wholesome, healthy, regenerative foods. On fast days, continue to choose foods from the Regenerate Rx, but keep your consumption down to just one meal and about a quarter of what you’d usually eat.
If feast-or-famine still feels too hard, you can take small steps toward fasting. It takes 8 to 12 hours for your body to burn through all the sugar stores from a meal, unless you ramp up your post-meal exercise, which can be a good idea if your time and schedule allow. If you don’t let 8 to 12 hours elapse between meals, your body will only burn carbs, and it won’t have the chance to burn fat, including belly fat.
Even short, simple fasts can allow optimal fat-burning to take place. The first step is to stop eating food after 8 p.m. Eat dinner and then call it a night in terms of food consumption. The second step is to stretch your breakfast time until 8 a.m., and voila, you’re partaking in a 12-hour microfast every day. Since you’ll spend most of those hours asleep, fasting should be easier and give your body an opportunity to do the deep regenerative work it cannot do when not burdened with excessive food from eating late. Once you’re comfortable with your 12-hour fast, you can extend it. Walk away from the kitchen at 7:00 p.m., and don’t return for breakfast until 11:00 a.m. the next day.
Fasting is not starving. If you feel yourself becoming sick or weak, stop. That being said, if spacing out your eating feels healthy to you, it may be able to help improve your metabolism, even if you don’t change what you eat.
2. Sunbathe to Speed Up Your Metabolism
Sunlight can strengthen and build your bones and brighten your mood. When human skin is exposed to ultraviolet light, the body can speed up the metabolism of fat that’s directly under the skin (subcutaneous fat).31 Unlike belly fat, which is wrapped around your internal organs, subcutaneous fat is not considered a risk factor for metabolic disorders. But consider this: people who don’t get enough vitamin D tend to have more belly fat.32 And there’s a solid body of research that links obesity with a deficiency of vitamin D.33 Getting UVB radiation might be an essential and easy strategy to burn your belly fat away, because it helps your body manufacture vitamin D from cholesterol. Head out sunscreen-free for 15-20 minutes during the UVB-abundant two hours before and after solar noon. To protect yourself, use the internal sunscreens of increased chlorophyll, astaxanthin, and antioxidants. Externally, you can apply titanium dioxide formulations, as long as they do not contain nanoparticles (make sure the label states “non-nano”), or sunscreens made with zinc oxide.
3. Develop a High-Intensity Interval Training Routine
The definition of an ideal workout used to be 30-60 minutes of cardiovascular activity performed at a moderate pace. New research shows that very short blasts of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can dramatically improve glucose metabolism and produce immediate effects. It’s also the most effective exercise method for reducing belly fat for obese women with metabolic syndrome.34
Americans often hear from their doctors that when it comes to exercise, doing “something is better than nothing.” That’s true. It really is better to walk around the block than to sit on the couch, and it’s better to take the stairs than to take the elevator. Exercise, or intentional movement, of any kind helps the body to use stored-up energy. It increases the number of insulin receptors in your muscle cells, which allows blood glucose to be delivered to the cell for energy, and can release hormones and neurotransmitters that help suppress your appetite. If you enjoy working out at a moderate pace for a half an hour or longer, don’t let me stop you. But if you are at risk for a metabolic disorder or are serious about losing belly fat, doing HIIT can do the job twice as fast.
When you rethink metabolic disorders through the lens of an evolutionarily appropriate lifestyle template, you will discover an array of preventive and curative options. By avoiding the toxic chemicals that ravage your metabolism and by consuming the foods and natural compounds that regenerate the beta cells of your pancreas, you might discover that over time, your symptoms will resolve themselves. Add in some fasting, high-intensity interval training, and targeted sun exposure, and you will feel your mood soar. And not only will your waistline contract, but your core will grow stronger. With lower blood sugar and an optimized cellular response to insulin, you can successfully beat back metabolic disorders, maintain a healthy weight, and extend your life.