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Does Insulin Cause Weight Gain for Type 1 Diabetics?

Insulin is a hormone produced by the beta cells in the pancreas that regulates blood glucose. With type 1 diabetes however, the body mistakenly attacks and destroys the beta cells meaning insulin can no longer be produced naturally. Exogenous insulin is therefore necessary for type 1 diabetics like myself.

After diagnosis, type 1 diabetics will often gain weight and this isn't necessarily a bad thing. A common early symptom of type 1 diabetes is rapid, unexplained weight loss. Insulin acts as a key which allows glucose to enter the body's cells for use as energy. As a type 1 diabetic does not produce insulin naturally, the body will break down fat and muscle for energy which can cause weight loss. Once the diabetic begins taking exogenous insulin, the body can once again utilise glucose efficiently for energy so the weight that was lost pre-diagnosis can be regained.

A danger with insulin though is unwanted weight gain as a result of excessive insulin administration. If too much exogenous insulin is taken, blood glucose will drop too low. This is known as hypoglycaemia. If you have ever experienced a hypo you will know it causes hunger and the immediate reaction is to grab a sugary snack to bring the blood sugar level back up. This sudden extreme hunger can often cause over consumption though, which can then cause blood sugars to rise too far (hyperglycemia). More insulin is then required to bring blood sugars back down.

Regular swings between hypers and hypos can mean a higher level of insulin administration. Regular low blood glucose levels and therefore regular compensating with sugary snacks can add up to huge calorie surpluses and therefore weight gain. A type 1 diabetic should therefore aim to maintain stable blood glucose levels within the recommended ranges. This is typically between 4 to 7 mmol/L before meals. Keeping blood glucose within these ranges will help avoid over consumption of sugar as a result of insulin derived hypos.

It's true to say that insulin is often associated with weight gain but it is not a direct cause. Rather, excess sugar and calories as a result of unstable blood glucose levels can lead to weight gain. In other words, if our caloric intake exceeds our maintenance calories we will gain weight.

Type 1 diabetes and therefore the need to judge exogenous insulin administration several times a day can certainly make this more difficult but it's not an excuse. A healthy, well balanced diet that suffices our body's needs along with regular physical activity can help here greatly. Exercise along with various other factors including reducing stress, improving sleep quality, intermittent fasting and certain supplementation have been shown to have the added benefit of improving insulin sensitivity. This means the body can more effectively utilise glucose and so less insulin is required.

Although insulin does have a part to play in weight gain, we still have the majority of the control. Our food intake, exercise schedule and ability to maintain stable blood glucose levels all have a significant role in where our weight ends up. It's important to remember though that weight alone is not the only test of good health. Be sure to consult your diabetic professional before changing your diabetes management.

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