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Grizzly Bears and Humans: Understanding How Weight Affects Obesity and Diabetes Risk

BearHow much do you know about bears? Probably nothing more than what you’ve seen on TV or in picture books, right?

Well, a new study on hibernating grizzly bears may shed light on obesity and diabetes in humans. And it all centers on insulin.

As you know, insulin is an important hormone that is a key part of blood sugar control. Insulin unlocks cells and allows sugar to enter them and energize the body.

However, in a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism, researchers found that insulin levels in grizzlies do not change–in sharp contrast to humans.

Insulin levels in humans can rise and then begin to decrease, as seen in the tissues of obese people with type 2 diabetes who grow increasingly insensitive to insulin, leading to insulin resistance.

In the fall–when grizzly bears are most obese–grizzlies are actually more sensitive to insulin. This is because a protein in fat cells (called PTEN) is shut down, say researchers. And actually, when they are hibernating, they develop a natural state of diabetes that is cured when they wake up in the spring, according to the study.

This suggests that obesity does not necessarily lead to diabetes, at least in grizzly bears. The researchers believe that obesity and diabetes “may exist naturally on opposite ends of the metabolic spectrum,” they said.

The research team thinks that what leads to obesity in some people–such as lower levels of this protein in fat cells–could protect them from diabetes. And what leads other people to develop diabetes could protect them from obesity.

While the findings “support a more comprehensive and holistic approach to caring for patients with diabetes and/or obesity,” the team notes that more research is needed.

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