Just how much do you know about insulin? Sure, you've heard of it before, and understand that it does something important with blood glucose and is associated with diabetes, but that's frequently the end of the story.
In reality, insulin is so much more interesting and has far-reaching implications beyond what you could ever imagine.
Insulin is extremely useful to athletes, but can just as easily spiral out of control and absolutely wreak havoc on a myriad of body functions.
But relax, it's not too late. There are ways to harness insulin's power and minimize its untoward effects at the same time. You'll learn how in this blog.
What Exactly Is Insulin?
In contrast to hormones such as testosterone, which are classified as steroids, insulin is not one of that class. Instead, it belongs to the class of peptide hormones, which are composed of amino acid chains. Thus, it's really a protein.
It is produced in the pancreas by specialized beta cells, arranged in structures known as Islet Of Langerhans.
Insulin release is triggered when blood glucose levels rise, in turn sending the glucose to cells where it is needed, or put into storage as glycogen or dreadingly- as fat in fat cells.
The primary purpose of insulin is to act as an anabolic and storage mediator, and it does that exceptionally.
Insulin's Relationship With Muscle
Insulin is said to be the most anabolic hormone on the planet (although the verdict is still out on that). But its anabolic potency is undisputed. This is why it is also heavily abused by professional athletes looking to gain a competitive edge.
Within muscle cells, glucose that is taken up is stored in the form of glycogen, a reservoir for quick ATP production when exercise is performed. Glycogen stores are finite and are usually lesser in untrained individuals than athletes.
This is an adaptation that enables muscles to grow larger and stronger to deal with the rigors of exercise. Insulin is one of the few hormones which can directly stimulate glycogen synthesis in muscle cells.
In addition, insulin inhibits proteolysis of muscle breakdown. So not only does it promote glycogen storage and reduce muscle breakdown- it also promotes protein synthesis by driving amino acids into muscle cells.
The best way to improve the shuttling of amino acids and glucose into muscle cells? Via resistance exercise (otherwise known as weightlifting). During the post-workout interval, nutrients are preferentially shuttled into muscle cells.
But it doesn't end there. Insulin also has the effect of acting as a vasodilator at the post-workout interval, improving blood flow and delivery to muscles. This is advantageous because improved delivery means superior nutrient flow as well, helping your hungry muscles make use of the availability.
Do all carbs raise insulin? Yes, they do. However, if your goal is to stimulate the maximum rate of protein synthesis, slower digesting carbs are not the way to go. You want rapid digesting carbohydrates that cause an acute insulin spike. More on the types of carbs later.
Insulin's Relationship With Fat
This is the big one. The one that destroys many bodies, and worst- many lives and health.
Insulin is not a villain. It is doing exactly what is supposed to be doing, albeit to your detriment. Insulin functioned as a survival adaptation to our ancestors, which allowed for nutrition surplus to be stored as fat and glycogen.
It was very common for them to go extended periods of time without food and it stands to reason that energy surplus would be stored in the form of body fat, for survival.
The modern age has changed this interaction with our environment. Food is readily available, and we are not as active as our ancestors were. These two factors have led to a population that is struggling with obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes type 2.
When insulin is chronically elevated due to over-consumption of refined carbohydrates, the fat cells in our body become resistant to insulin. This means that you will have higher glucose levels circulating than normal. When this happens, yet more insulin is produced and circulated. The process continues on and on until eventually there is too much circulating glucose (hyperglycemia).
This is when diabetes type 2 sets in. The body can no longer produce enough insulin to effectively shuttle glucose into cells, and it builds up in the bloodstream.
Even if you are not diabetic, chronically high insulin levels will make it very difficult for you to lose fat. Insulin's job is to store excess nutrients as fat, and if you are constantly exposed to high levels of glucose it will want to do its job.
In fact, cortisol's ability to induce fat burning is impaired during times of insulin elevations. This simply means that the more insulin you have in your system, the harder building a lean physique becomes. It can be likened to having your hands tied behind your back.
Insulin shuts down the process of fat burning (lipolysis) and increases lipogenesis (fat synthesis, especially from glucose).
Insulin needs to be kept in check by diet, exercise, and the right type of carbohydrate at the right time. If you are trying to make serious changes happen with your physique, insulin control will be one of the biggest variables in your success.
So How Do We Control It?
Insulin is a hormone, and like other hormones, it responds to the way we live our lives.
First and foremost, keep blood sugar levels stable. This means eating a diet high in fiber (roughage), low in refined carbohydrates, moderate protein intake, and thriving on healthy fats. Moderate protein is important because if you eat only lean-protein sources your body will produce less insulin in response. This will help to keep glucose levels low and muscle protein synthesis high.
Exercise is also very important since it offers a similar effect as dietary fiber. By taking your body through periods of increased exertion you are forcing it to produce more insulin, which then results in the shuttling of nutrients into muscle cells and away from fat cells.
This is why pre-or post-workout nutrition can be very helpful in your quest to build muscle and lose fat. Eating a moderate amount of fast-digesting carbohydrates before or after your workout will result in an insulin spike, which will then transfer nutrients into your muscles for growth, and away from unwanted locations like your belly.
Taken together, proper diet, exercise, and timing can all help to keep insulin in check and will increase your ability to build a lean, strong body. So remember- insulin is not the enemy. With some fine-tuning, you can turn it around for good!
Wisely Choose The Glycemic Index(GI) of Carbohydrates You Consume
As you might have seen by now, insulin definitely has it positives, but also negatives. This is why nutrient timing is so important, as well as the overall glycemic index of the carbohydrate food source in question.
The GI refers to the speed at which that particular food raises blood glucose levels. Another way to look at it is how fast it converts to glucose, by measuring how acutely the levels in the blood rise.
As you might have guessed, glucose has a GI of 100, being the prototypical carb. But interestingly, white bread also has a GI of 100, as does candy.
This is one of the reasons why you should always be reading food labels, as white bread can easily be mistaken for being a healthier option than pure glucose.
Other interesting surprises are table sugar ranking at 65, while watermelon ranks at 72. These choices make timing important, as the higher GI carbs should be consumed pre/post-workout, and slower GI carbs taken the rest of the day when lower insulin levels are preferred.
Remember; acutely increasing levels of insulin in the body throughout the day is not only unnecessary but increases the storage of circulating fatty acids as well. For this reason, limit the acute insulin spikes for when you want nutrients to be shuttled into the muscles most.
Does Protein Consumption Affect Insulin Levels?
Yes, to varying degrees. It is a common misconception that restricting carbohydrates and filling the void with protein will result in superior insulin control. It can, but only if you're careful. Many amino acids are glucogenic, meaning that they can be converted into glucose under certain conditions (gluconeogenesis), such as when the intake of carbohydrates is low and the body needs to use glucose for the maintenance of critical processes.
Alternatively, amino acids such as leucine and lysine are referred to as being ketogenic since they lend themselves to the production of ketone bodies.
This means that fast-acting proteins like whey are likely to spike blood glucose, and subsequently, insulin, more than protein foods like eggs. Casein protein is also slower than whey protein and causes a lower insulin spike.
Insulin Sensitivity And Resistance
Insulin sensitivity is a measure of how responsive your cells are to the hormone insulin. In general, if you have good insulin sensitivity, your body will use insulin efficiently and keep blood glucose at healthy levels. If you have poor insulin sensitivity or resistance, your cells do not respond well to insulin and blood glucose levels can become elevated.
There is a complex interplay between diet, exercise level, and genetics that determines how sensitive or resistant someone is to insulin. However, in general, people who are overweight or obese are more likely to be insulin resistant.
When cells become resistant to the effects of insulin, the pancreas has to secrete more and more insulin to try to get the cells to respond. This can lead to a condition called hyperinsulinemia, which is when there are high levels of insulin in the blood.
This is the point at which insulin resistance is said to have been achieved, as the cells are insensitive to its actions and the cascade of complications begins.
Hyperinsulinemia is associated with an increased risk of several chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Being frequently in a state of hypercalories will almost certainly yield a degree of insulin resistance, as the constant bombardment of cells by insulin is not ideal.
Worried about hunger? Don't be. Unless you are constantly binging on fast-digesting carbs that cause massive insulin spikes, hunger won't be unbearable. This is because it is those very peaks that trigger subsequent cravings and hunger.
Optimize Your Insulin Levels Using Supplements
The first step to optimizing your insulin levels is to make sure you are eating a nutritious diet and getting enough exercise.
If you are doing these things and still struggling with insulin resistance, there are supplements that can help. This is because it boils down primarily to how effectively you can get down glucose levels.
Appropriately, they are sometimes called "glucose disposal agents", simply because they are so good at getting glucose out of your blood, in turn lowering insulin. If you need that extra push, try the following:
Cinnamon works by increasing insulin sensitivity. 1g of cinnamon taken daily can improve insulin sensitivity by up to 20%
Berberine is an alkaloid that comes from the Berberis plant.
It has been shown in studies to be as effective as metformin, a common diabetes medication, at improving insulin sensitivity and lowering blood sugar levels.
Chromium is a mineral that helps the body to use insulin more effectively.
Studies have shown that chromium can improve insulin sensitivity by up to 33%.
Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA)
ALA is a fatty acid that has powerful antioxidant effects. It also improves insulin sensitivity and can help to lower blood sugar levels.
Fenugreek is an herb that has been used medicinally for centuries. It decreases blood sugar levels by delaying gastric emptying and improving glucose tolerance.
Insulin is definitely an enigma. It can be used to help you take your training and physique to new heights. However, if not managed correctly, it can also lead to a whole host of health problems.
By following the tips in this article and paying attention to how your body responds to insulin, you can make sure you stay on the right side of the fence.