A global approach to metabolic health
Hi, I’m Joe, and I decided to launch Insulin360 as a way to collate and expand on much of the interesting research and ideas gathered while preparing my final thesis on insulin issues. Over the coming months I’ll be interviewing many health experts from around the world and publishing them here.
Why focus on metabolic health?
When we think of what is most important to us as individuals, families and the society as a whole, there is nothing more important than our health. Good health is not only defined by the absence of disease, but also the capacity to reach our full potential and live fulfilling, meaningful lives which enrich the world around us.
While lifespan has undoubtedly increased in recent decades in many countries across the world due to advances in food production, clean water, critical care medicine and reduced infant mortality and infectious diseases, chronic disease levels have skyrocketed to the point where an estimated 1 in 3 people across the world are dealing with multiple chronic conditions. A joint report by the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Economic Forum estimates that chronic disease will be costing the world’s economies $47 trillion by 2030 , and beyond the economic cost, there is an enormous human cost as people debilitated by disease can no longer live and work normally.
“Chronic disease is responsible for 7 out of 10 deaths worldwide and the global cost to economies will reach $47 trillion by 2030 by some estimates”
But is this situation the inevitable result of living longer? A growing body of research suggests that while chronological age is important, it plays a smaller role than we would expect, and overwhelmingly the deterioration into chronic disease is dictated by the way we live. More and more research is pointing to social, cultural and environmental factors as drivers of chronic disease, and this is borne out as we compare aged populations in different countries such as Japan, where the incidence of chronic disease is relatively low despite being home to the oldest population of any country on the planet. On the other hand, we see a stark difference when looking at some Western countries like the United States or the United Kingdom, where over half of people aged over 65 have 1 or more chronic diseases with the situation getting worse. Even in Japan, chronic disease is on the rise as modern ways of living replace older traditions in becoming ever more widespread.
What’s driving it?
So what are the main factors driving chronic disease? Perhaps one the biggest factors has been industrialisation and the departure from our normal daily rhythms. Although industrialisation has improved our standard of living in untold ways, it has come at a cost. Humans no longer have to follow the circadian rhythm of the sun, and technology has shifted most work indoors. So both exposure to the sun and to the darkness of the night have become optional, and in many cases positively discouraged by our workaholic lifestyles and our brightly lit cities. This has also spurred a dramatic shift in activity levels, as we have shifted from a predominantly agrarian way of life to one in front of the screen, and there have also been profound changes in our diet, our exposure to air pollution and other toxins such as dioxins, bisphenols and pesticides, our chronic stress levels and not least, our relationships with each other, our societies and the natural world. With around 55% of us now living in cities and most of the remainder still living industrialised lives one way or another, it is fair to say that only a very small percentage of earth’s inhabitants are living a pre-industrialised lifestyle; that is, a way of life that is in line with what our biology was built for. For everyone else, we are asking our brains and our bodies to function in ways that they were not designed to do, and this more than likely sets the stage for chronic disease. Psychological trauma and stress have also been repeatedly and reliably linked with an increased risk of many chronic diseases, and often these deeper psycho-emotional causes can be found driving the more overt factors such as the way we eat.
“Although genetics and longer lives play their part, environmental factors are the main drivers: how we live, what we eat, exercise, sleep, stress management, how we interact with each other and the world around us”
When looking at why people descend into chronic disease, clues come in the form of changing biochemical markers, and one hormone that has sparked significant interest is insulin. Changes in insulin production and use around the body have been implicated as significant causal factors in most of today’s chronic diseases, in some cases preceding the overt disease state by several years. A growing body of research also suggests that these changes in insulin result from many of the social, cultural and environmental factors that have been implicated in the progression of chronic diseases, which means that changes in insulin aren’t the cause in and of themselves, but instead represent a sort of marker or checkpoint that shows up along the path towards chronic disease: an early warning system that occurs before many other symptoms arise, potentially giving people a chance to address any underlying causes before developing a chronic condition. And beyond blood sugar, insulin has many different physiological effects on the body and the mind, so having healthy levels of insulin is also a likely marker for overall physical, psycho-emotional and energetic health and an important factor in ageing well. Insulin is our primary anabolic hormone: our primary hormone for growth, and we might also think of it not only in terms of physical growth but as psychological and emotional growth as well.
“Insulin is one hormone of many that deserve attention as part of a systems approach to metabolic health issues. In essence, Naturopathy is about taking a systems approach, analysing root causes and taking into account physical, psycho-emotional and energetic drivers which manifest differently for each individual.”
So why use a naturopathic approach with insulin issues? Firstly, in naturopathy we are looking for the cause. This is an important paradigm shift, because as we will see, insulin issues can lead to a whole range of different symptoms, so if we only treat the symptoms, we may have short term relief but different symptoms or diseases are likely to emerge over time. In naturopathy, the symptom is not viewed as something to get rid of, but a physical manifestation of something deeper that the body is trying to communicate. By evaluating the symptom in this way, we can develop a better understanding of any underlying causes and ultimately a better chance of creating lasting change. Secondly, naturopathy aims to evaluate the whole person, not only as a physical entity but also taking into account psycho-emotional, energetic and spiritual aspects. Evaluating the person from these different perspectives allows the naturopath to create a more complete picture, and above all to highlight how these different planes of existence interact and eventually result in physical symptoms.
Another important concept is the idea that the human body is not just a series of moving parts but has an innate intelligence and self-healing capacity. Often, symptoms don’t arise from something being ‘broken’ but rather the result of a compensatory mechanism aimed at maintaining a dynamic state of homeostasis as the body adapts and survives in an ever changing environment. Like a stream that remains stable but has a constant inflow and outflow of water and energy, maintaining homeostasis in complex organic systems requires a constant supply of resources and energy, but this biological cost is minimised through careful and complex calculations. On the surface, insulin resistance may seem like things are not working properly, but apart from late stage dysfunction, we also know that the body uses insulin resistance as a physiological tool: for example in preparing for winter by shunting glucose into stored energy as fat deposits around the body as well as guaranteeing a constant energy supply to the brain. In these cases, the biological cost of generating some insulin resistance in the muscle and liver is not zero, but it is less than the consequences of attempting to survive winter without fat reserves or of leaving the brain without enough glucose. And last but not least, naturopaths have an important educational role in helping their clients optimise lifestyle factors: in the importance of maintaining good circadian rhythms, managing stress effectively, highlighting the importance of physical activity, making better food choices, minimising toxic exposure around the home and many other factors that help facilitate better health.
“Sometimes what looks like pathology is in fact an intelligent adaptation by the body to maintain homeostasis.”
Overall, it is clear that chronic disease represents perhaps one of the biggest challenges to humanity now and in the coming decades, and dealing with insulin issues is key in reducing this burden. But it is also clear that in order to do that, we need to avoid looking at insulin in isolation and instead begin to take a more global approach where we also consider environmental, psycho-emotional, social, energetic and even spiritual aspects in order to develop a greater understanding of what is actually going on and how we might go about resolving it – not only in the case of symptomatic relief but also as part of a wider project of personal growth and the evolution of our species.
(An excerpt from the thesis “Naturopathic approaches to insulin issues”)
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