If you’re an avid student of health and wellness then you’ll know that just a decade or so back only ‘the experts’ had any idea about what insulin is. The rest of us (if we’d even heard of the stuff) never even considered the idea of understanding this or indeed any hormone. Things have changed. In 2008 the wellness industry is expanding so rapidly that by the year 2010 experts predict it will overtake it’s biggest ‘competitor’ (sickness) to become the next trillion dollar p/year industry, and with that growth comes knowledge. We now know that the function and balance of our hormones is crucial to every aspect of our health, whether it’s weight management, energy, fertility, digestion, sleep, and even our moods.
We’re educated, we’re informed, we keep up to date, and we know what’s what.
Don’t we? Well, let’s see about that in a moment. Here’s an example of our new-found wisdom. Many of us are aware that blood-levels of insulin increase when we eat starchy carbohydrates or sugary food. We know that people who suffer from diabetes, hypoglycemia, or hyperglycemia need to pay attention to insulin-spiking foods (although we may not be sure exactly what they’re paying attention to, apart from the generic ‘sugar’). Some of us have even heard that too much insulin can cause our bodies to store extra fat. And those that haven’t heard it before have quite possibly gathered some sort of idea that insulin is a baddie. A nasty hormone that we should learn how to keep in check, and preferably extradite from our system ASAP. Here’s where knowledge can get a little scary. Because while that’s true in part, it goes a long way from telling the whole story. I’d sure hate to leave you thinking that the hormone insulin is playing bad cop with your system when maybe, just maybe, your body actually has some darn good reasons for letting this stuff run loose. What Insulin Does: Who, What, When, Where, Why?
- Who? Every last one of us.
- What? Insulin is not only a hormone, but also a protein (like many other hormones). How is this relevant to anything? Just a clue: proteins aid in recovery and can be crucial to a healthy metabolism. More on that shortly.
- Where? Insulin is released (secreted) by your pancreas.
- When? This happens when you have high levels of glucose present in your blood. Glucose is simple sugar present in your blood, and it’s existence is largely related to which foods you eat.
- Why? Insulin’s job is to shuttle that excess glucose into cells in your body where it can be used for energy. Insulin can be stored in most of your body’s cells, including your liver, muscle and fat cells.
What Happens To The Glucose That Insulin Delivers To Your Cells? TIP: This part’s important! When glucose enters your liver and muscle cells it is burned to produce heat and adenosine triphosyphate (ATP). ATP is a molecule that stores energy and then releases it as needed. If you’ve got your thinking cap on you’ll release by now that without insulin this process would not be possible. Your liver and muscle cells would not be able to turn glucose into energy, which would pretty much put a stop to life as you know it. This is partly why sufferers of diabetes may complain of blurry vision, become extremely lethargic, and have trouble losing weight. They are suffering from lower than adequate insulin levels – the result of a pancreas that just can’t figure out how much insulin is needed.
But what if – as is true of many adults – you have too much insulin in your blood stream? What if your blood sugar levels are consistently so high that your poor old pancreas is working 24/7 and then some, sending out more and more insulin in a quest to lower your blood sugar, while meanwhile you’re just jacking it back up again by making poor food choices?
When Insulin Stops Being Your Friend I just explained what happens to the glucose that insulin delivers to your muscle and liver cells. These cells are the first stop on the insulin train. This is because the energy created in your muscle and liver cells is crucial to your function, but it’s also readily available. Energy on tap, so to speak. There’s just one potential problem with this whole process.
What if you don’t use the energy that your body is storing for you?
If you don’t use the accessible energy in your liver and muscle cells, then they will eventually run out of room. This is one reason why exercising with weights will increase your metabolism – it creates more space in your muscles for energy storage. When your liver and muscle cells fill up you’re in trouble. The energy has to go somewhere. If it floats around your bloodstream for too long then you could build an insulin-resistance, and you definitely don’t want that. So what your smart body does is quick-smart shuttles that energy into your fat cells. Filling them up. Expanding them. And even multiplying them (the idea that fat cells only multiply during adolescence and pregnancy is now outdated). What’s more, once you produce a new fat cell, you can shrink it, but it will NEVER GO AWAY. Damn things just won’t die, so best to avoid creating them in the first place. If you’re struggling to lose weight, even if you’re a fairly active person, then it’s more than likely that you are consuming more energy than what your body needs. And just as energy stored in your muscle and liver cells is readily available, energy packed into your fat cells is camping down for the long-term. Sure, you can burn off stored body fat, but as I’m sure you’ve discovered, it ain’t an easy process. Foods That Elevate Your Blood Glucose Levels The main contributor to blood glucose levels is carbohydrate, but proteins can also cause this to happen. How fast your blood glucose levels rise depends on several factors, including how fast your body can digest the food and absorb the glucose from your intestines into your blood. Here’s what you need to know:
- Starchy carbohydrates will raise blood glucose very rapidly. This includes grain-based products such as bread, cereals, pasta, rice, pancakes. Even the wholegrain versions, although it’s true that the more processed the grains are, the more rapidly your body will digest and convert them to glucose. Potatos are also a starchy carbohydrate.
- Simple sugars such as sodas, processed fruit juice, sweetened dairy products, candies and the like are pretty much already in a straight glucose format, so they will definitely hike your blood sugars up quick-smart. Oh – and telling yourself you’ll stop at just a small treat is a joke. Elevated insulin levels cause hunger and food cravings – usually for sweet foods. This is due to the rise and subsequent drop in blood sugar levels. It’s pretty tough to avoid the cycle as not eating usually leads to shakiness, moodiness and fatigue. Tip: your fat cells LOVE it when you eat simple sugars.
- Even fruits can be dangerous to your blood sugar levels, although the fiber element does help to slow the digestive process. This is why whole fruit is preferable to fruit juice.
- All of the above are examples of carbohydrates, but that’s not to say you should avoid carbohydrates altogether. Choose foods that will be released slowly and steadily. Vegetables (except potatoes) fall into this category. Many experts would say whole-grains do also, but I tend to be wary of any food that is over-consumed. What’s more, for a company to label it’s product ‘whole-grain’, it only needs 51% whole grains. Duped! This article is not about grains, so for now I’ll leave it at this: if you must consume grain-based foods, buy 100% whole-grain, preferably organic. Remember – even 100% whole-grain is still a processed food, unless you are eating it straight from the field.
- Quickly digested proteins such as whey protein powder or egg-based protein powders will also cause your blood glucose levels to rise. These proteins are better to consume after exercise as your body will suck them straight into your muscles.
- Animal based proteins such as red meat, poultry, game meat and so on, will be digested at a slower pace. If you’re ever unsure about digestion speed – it’s pretty much that the softer or more liquid-y foods will be digested and converted to glucose the fastest!
- Although dairy foods contain natural sugar (lactose) they also contain protein and fat, which allows your body to slow the digestive process.
- That last point hopefully gave you a little tip: eating good fats and proteins with your carbohydrates can slow digestion, so if you must eat those starchy carbs, try and combine them with other foods. Ie – chicken pasta rather than pasta napoli
More Bad News On Too Much Insulin Caused Through High Blood Sugar Levels Unless you are a super active person with a fully functioning metabolism, it’s pretty darn easy to cause your body to store fat. While everyone has different requirements for how much carbohydrate they need, I’ve read some research that indicates your liver stores are full after the equivalent of a cup of cooked pasta. Better start building those muscles if you love your carbs! To add insult to injury, here’s something else you may not have thought of. If you’re body is in fat storing mode, it is, by definition, not releasing stored fat. Double whammy. What’s more, weight gain isn’t the only outcome of constantly high blood glucose levels. Excess insulin release can also cause:
- Adult-onset diabetes
- Increased blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- High tryglycerides (dangerous fat in your blood-stream)
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease
- Degeneration of your nervous and neurovascular system
The Good News: How To Make Insulin Work For You When insulin levels are kept low, and when you regularly deplete your muscle and liver energy stores (i.e. through appropriate exercise levels), your body stops use of fat as an energy source. This is excellent news because it means your body begins to use fat for energy – helping you to slowly but surely shed those excess pounds. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should avoid all foods that cause your blood sugar levels to rise, although I’d certainly recommend that if you are particularly inactive or just having a slack day. But what you should do in order to take advantage of insulin’s anabolic (recovery and metabolism building) effects, is time your food and exercise wisely. For example, choosing to indulge in a starchy carb meal is best done after a workout for one very important reason:
Your muscle (and liver) cells have been depleted of ready energy during your exercise session, and need to be re-fueled – starchy carbs will do this quickly, as will easy-to-digest proteins like a quality whey powder. Basically this means that you have a guarantee that excess blood sugar and other nutrients will be ‘pushed’ into those depleted cells. This can aid in your recovery process as well as ensure your body does not store any more fat.
Apologies for the length of this post – but I guess that now, when it comes to the topic of insulin and your Body Incredible – you truly can say that you’re educated, informed, you keep up to date, and you know what’s what! What are your thoughts on this topic? What would you like to know about about the role of other hormones in your body? Don’t forget to add your comment at the end of this text and get involved in the BodyIncredible.com community! Want to learn more about my preferred whey-protein product? It’s actually part of an amazing 30-day detox that I and my clients have used with great success. You can read my detox journal here – it might surprise you to learn that I am, in fact, human 🙂 Remember – Life is Now. Press Play. Kat If you enjoyed this post please subscribe to my RSS feed. You can do that by clicking on the big orange button at the top right of this page. Or if you prefer email, just fill in your details in the box provided, also top right.