© Sarah Beesley MHD Hons
There have been significant changes to our food supply over the past 50-60 years in terms of the types of fats used, the types of starches and sugars, and the levels of chemicals present. This has resulted in a wealth of foods that increase inflammation and which are a major driving force behind the epidemic of chronic health problems in the Western World.
The “low-down” on fat
Fat is a vital part of our diet. The quality, type and balance of fat however, has a huge bearing on how our body functions. Omega 3 type fats have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, whereas omega 6 fats can be anti-inflammatory or inflammatory. Omega 6 and omega 3 compete with each other for conversion to useful compounds in the body and omega 6 is not a problem unless it is present in bigger quantities than omega 3.
Our modern diet has become very rich in omega 6, whereas our ancestor’s wild food diet was traditionally omega 3-rich. We have skewed our diet into being heavily omega 6 rich in the past century by producing vegetable oil products and using them in a lot of our manufactured food products and fried foods. If you look at the labels on salad dressings, toasted muesli, breads, pasta sauces, cakes, biscuits, pastry products, snack foods, crumbed foods, crackers, sauces and sauce mixes and goods tinned in oil for example, you will see that most contain vegetable oil, margarine or vegetable shortening which are all high in omega 6. You would never sit down and eat the quantity of raw material the oil was derived from, but you probably eat foods containing those oils every day without thinking about it. Doing this exposes you to far higher levels of omega 6 than your body is genetically designed to cope with. In most people this will skew their fat balance which impacts the kinds of hormones their bodies make. These oils are used in food because they are cheap and extend shelf life. They are not healthy, contrary to what the food industry would have you believe.
Arachidonic Acid: A result of a fat imbalance
Excessive omega 6 causes our bodies to make a lot of a substance called arachidonic acid. No one really talks about arachidonic acid, but it is a really important thing to know about. Arachidonic acid is a type of fatty acid that is produced in large amounts when omega 6 and omega 3 compete with each other for the use of enzymes in our bodies and the omega 6 wins, simply because there is more of it present. Some omega 6 is healthy, but too much and the wrong sort is not. Omega 6 is metabolized to make arachidonic acid when it is the dominant fat, which directly switches on a gene transcription factor called NF-κB which tells our cells to make inflammatory hormones. This, along with toxicity, is one of the major drivers of inflammation in the body. Omega 3 if it is dominant, does the opposite. The increase in inflammatory fats in our diet is a major contributor to the increase in heart disease, diabetes, cancer and a raft of other chronic health problems.
Drug companies know the importance and profitability of controlling inflammation (and specifically NFkB). Some of the most widely sold medications target the by-products of arachidonic acid and are sold as the answer to inflammation but do nothing to treat the driving force behind the inflammation which is further upstream and could be reduced by changing the food industry and people’s awareness of what is in their food. Anti-inflammatory medications are certainly useful tools in the short term, but most carry side effects when relied upon instead of the real changes that need to take place. At the very least, addressing the drivers of inflammation will substantially reduce the amount of medication required.
Heart Disease and Fat
There is a myth that says heart disease is caused by cholesterol and saturated fat from animal products. Unfortunately, a lot of the approach to heart disease still operates from this belief even though research is showing that this is not correct. The most rapid rise in heart disease was seen between 1920 and 1970. During this time consumption of animal fats actually declined, but the production and consumption of hydrogenated and industrially produced vegetable fats rose dramatically. It is the huge increase in omega 6 that came along with this change to our diet that resulted in the rise in heart disease, because along with it came increased arachidonic acid and increased inflammation.
Weight Gain and Arachidonic Acid
Your body uses your fat cells as a storage depot for excess arachidonic acid. It will increase the number of fat cells if there is more arachidonic acid than will fit into the existing fat cells. If the amount of arachidonic acid exceeds what the fat cells can keep up with, the cells become inflamed, insulin usage stops working properly and the fat starts to deposit in other organs such as the liver, pancreas, blood vessels and heart. Combine elevated arachidonic acid with elevated insulin (which is discussed immediately below), and you have a prime breeding ground for diabetes, cancer, heart disease and many other chronic health conditions.
The “Low-down” on sugar and insulin
The second major change to our diets in the past 50-60 years is the volume of processed, starchy and refined carbohydrate foods that are available. Carbohydrates turn into a sugar called glucose when eaten and are used only for making energy. They are not used for anything else. If you want to live a long and healthy life, you need to know all about sugar and carbohydrates, as well as arachidonic acid.
The food we eat today is vastly different from that which our ancestors ate. To say this may sound like stating the obvious but few people have a real understanding of what the differences are, or their impact. Historically we ate the equivalent of only 20 tsp of sugar a year as a hunter/gather species. Now the average person eats up to 70kg of sugar a year. That is around 1.5 kg of sugar a week! This is the sugar that is found in bread, cakes, desserts, icecream, lollies, sauces and dressings, baked beans, cereals, crackers, muesli bars, soy milk, tinned fruit, and a host of other manufactured or home baked foods. manufacturers have added it to almost all processed foods because we, the consumers have given them the message that we want sweet. We are no longer willing to accept cranberries that taste tart, or cereals that taste “grainy” and plain – we have allowed our palates to become accustomed to an abnormal level of sweetness and this shows in how food is manufactured today.
The following is an excerpt from “The Ultramind Solution” by Dr. Mark Hyman. I think he puts it rather well.
“We evolved in a world without supermarkets, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. We had to work for our food and had limited access to refined foods or excess calories. In fact our genes are pre-agricultural. We started farming only ten thousand years ago and started refining flour only two hundred years ago with the discovery of the steam engine-powered flour mill. The food industry has “progressed” a great deal in the last 100 years. Our genes have not kept up with these technological innovations. Yet, fifteen thousand low-fat foods (a.k.a. high sugar, high calorie foods) that we are not genetically designed to properly metabolise came on to the market place over the last fifteen years to twenty years.
The consequence? We have created an epidemic of increasing obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and brain disorders. The science for the low-fat movement was shaky form the start. Unfortunately, marketing companies overpowered medical science to the detriment of us all. Our bodies normally produce insulin in response to food in our stomach, particularly sugar. Our genetic code evolved at a time when we were eating an average of 20 tsp of sugar a year. That means our insulin response is designed to handle vastly lower levels of sugar than what we consume today. Our poor bodies respond to our new diet in the only way they know how: they keep pumping out insulin in response to this overload of sugars.
Eventually we become resistant to all this insulin in our blood, just as we would become resistant to a drug. The body needs more and more of it to do the same job it once did with far less. All this insulin tells us we are starving (that’s literally the message our bodies get), so we crave foods with a high sugar (and starch which turns into sugar) content – the very same foods that caused the problem in the first place. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if insulin metabolized only sugar. We once thought that was insulin’s only role – to help sugar enter your cells to be metabolized; transforming the stored energy of the sun (in the plant foods) into the energy we use every day to run our bodies.
Here is what too much insulin really does to your brain, your body and your health:
- Now we recognize insulin as a major switching station or control hormone for many bodily purposes. It is a major storage hormone – fat storage, that is.
- It also leads to mood and behavior disturbances (when too high) such as depression, panic attacks, anxiety, ADHD and insomnia.
- Try as you may, as long as your insulin levels are high you may fight a losing battle for weight loss. It acts on your brain to increase appetite – specifically an appetite for sugar (and starch).
- It increases LDL cholesterol, lowers HDL cholesterol, raises triglycerides and increases your blood pressure. Insulin resistance causes 50 percent of all reported cases of high blood pressure. (I wonder how many doctors are aware of that, considering that most treat high blood pressure as a blood pressure medication deficiency and high cholesterol as a statin deficiency?).
- It makes your blood sticky and more likely to clot, leading to heart attacks and strokes. (This is because it increases silent inflammation which causes fibrin to form tangles in the blood and platelets to clump which then get caught in the tangles, forming the clots).
- It stimulates the growth of cancer cells.
- It increases inflammation and oxidative stress (which increases NFkB activity) and ages your brain, leading to what is being called Type 3 Diabetes (also known as dementia and Alzheimer’s).
- It increases homocysteine because sugar consumption decreases B6 and folate. That takes the methylation train off the tracks making it hard for your brain to function and leading to more brain injury.
- It also causes sex hormone problems and can lead to infertility; hair growth where you don’t want it; hair loss where you don’t want to lose it; acne; low testosterone and a loss of chest, leg, and arm hair and breast growth in men; and more.”
- Women become more sensitive to the effects of insulin when they go through menopause, which is why many find it difficult to control their weight and get a more pronounced mustache and chin hairs.
- Elevated insulin also increases the amount of arachidonic acid you make.
- High insulin leads to the formation of skin tags in some people. They are not a strange random thing, they are signaling a negative change.
- Insulin is a master multi-tasker – it enables all body cells take up glucose for energy and it regulates neurotransmitters like acetylcholine which are critical for memory and learning. It also enables the brain to make new nerve connections and strengthens others. It is important for the function and growth of blood vessels which supply the brain with glucose and oxygen.
This is not about not eating carbohydrate foods.
It is a wake up call though about the type and the quantity you eat; and therefore the impact your diet has on your body. We are designed to work with a certain level of insulin in our blood stream – not too little and not too much. As long as we keep the amount of insulin we make in the “zone”, we have few problems. When we eat foods that trigger lots of insulin repeatedly, our cells become resistant to its normal effects and in effect starve for the fuel they need to make energy. This starts a vicious cycle of energy crashes followed by a desire for quick fixes.
The diet most of us have grown up with, with its main foods being bread, cereals, baking, crackers, pasta, potatoes and the like has resulted in most of us having insulin levels that are not healthy.
Warning signs can occur for anything up to 15-20 years before the real issues become apparent. They can also be masked by the use of medications which reduce the symptoms. If you have signs of blood sugar disregulation such as afternoon fatigue, weight gain around the middle, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, coffee, sugar or carb cravings, or get the shakes, nausea or become irritable if you miss a meal, it is a wake-up call. It tells you that your ability use insulin and glucose correctly is changing. And if these changes are occurring in your body, they will also be occurring in your brain.
If you have tests that show a normal glucose response or HB1aC reading but have a history of the above types of symptoms, it is no grounds for complacency. Those tests show whether your body can still compensate for elevated blood sugar, but do not show the degree of insulin resistance you may have – not until it is a real problem.
What happens when there is too much insulin and/or arachidonic acid?
The definition of a healthy fat cell is one that can easily expand to store incoming fats and release stored fat for energy production when blood glucose drops. One of the lesser known but important jobs that fat cells perform is to mop up excess amounts of arachidonic acid. They do this to prevent the arachidonic acid from staying in circulation and doing damage elsewhere. If too much arachidonic acid builds up within a fat cell, it will cause damage to that cell and this will cause an inflammatory response.
Likewise, if too much arachidonic acid stays in circulation it will activate an inflammatory response in parts of the body other than the fat. The body tries to prevent this from occurring by creating new fat cells so it can continue to store the arachidonic acid safely. As long as new fat cells can be made, the effects of the arachidonic acid will be minimized and level of cellular inflammation will stay relatively low.
Your body is built for survival. You may not have realised it, but the fat on your body is not only a store of latent energy; it is also a place your body can stash stuff that would otherwise do damage – such as excess glucose and excess arachidonic acid.
Insulin also affects fat cells. If the levels of insulin remain in a healthy range, the fat cell’s ability to store excess glucose and release it when signaled to do so will work like a charm. However if insulin levels get too high, the fat cells (and other body cells) become resistant to its effects. Sugars then build up in the blood and can no longer be burnt efficiently for energy. This results in Type 2 Diabetes – inflammation, fatigue and organ damage – if left untreated.
High insulin and high arachidonic acid are problematic in their own right and both will pave the way to obesity, but put them together and the situation starts to get really messy. This is because high insulin levels will increase the amount of arachidonic acid the body makes, and high arachidonic acid creates inflammation which in turn disrupts the ability of cells to respond to insulin correctly. In effect, it becomes a vicious cycle.
Use of the enzyme lipase also becomes compromised through this disruption in insulin signaling. Lipase is the enzyme that allows fat to get out of the fat cells, making it possible to burn body fat for energy. When lipase is affected, fat stays in the fat cells even when blood sugar runs low. Because the body’s alternative fuel (fat) is no longer readily converted this creates increased fatigue, sugary or starchy food cravings and again, a vicious cycle.
In addition to all this, once fat cells become inflamed, they add to the inflammatory burden by producing their own inflammatory hormones called cytokines. When inflammation increases beyond a critical threshold in any one fat cell, the fat may die. The death of any fat cell causes the immune system to move into the fat tissue in an effort to clean up the mess and along with it comes another set of inflammatory chemicals as part of its clean up process. This inflames the fat further and creates yet another vicious cycle.
With inflamed fatty tissue, some of the inflammatory chemicals may escape into the circulatory system. If this happens it will cause an increase in C Reactive Protein (CRP) formation in the liver and is seen as a rising CRP blood test reading. This is a marker of pronounced inflammation. It is not always present in the early stages of metabolic disease, but once it is, it is a good indicator of the severity of the problem.
The vicious cycles will not be broken until both insulin levels and arachidonic acid levels come down. Two of the most inexpensive and valuable things you can do for your long term health are to learn how to control insulin and how to reduce the amount of arachidonic acid you make. Through The Ultimate Health Program you will learn exactly how to do this.
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