When you think of insulin, the first thing that probably comes to mind is diabetes. Understandably so, since both type 1 and type 2 diabetes occur when our insulin levels are out of whack. Type 1 is an autoimmune condition that occurs when the body cannot release enough insulin to regulate our blood sugar. Type 2 however, is completely preventable. Basically – if we consume too much sugar, our bodies go into a state of insulin resistance – also known as pre-diabetes. Luckily, type 2 diabetes can be avoided and even reversed if caught early enough. But it’s important to know – getting diagnosed with diabetes OR your doctor telling you that you’re pre-diabetic is NOT the only time we should be paying attention to insulin.
To make a complex subject as simple as possible, let’s first explore the role of insulin in our bodies. When we consume sugar or food that becomes sugar (refined carbs – think white pasta, breads, cereals), our pancreas releases the hormone insulin to reduce the glucose (sugar) in our blood. Insulin acts as a sort of gatekeeper of the cells – the pancreas releases insulin to unlock the cell to allow the right amount of glucose in, which feeds the cells and gives us energy. It also allows the process of storing glucose (by turning it into glycogen) in our muscles and liver to be released for more energy when we need it. Anything extra in the blood stream after this process gets converted into fat. When we consume too much sugar, this gate to our cell becomes blocked, rendering the release of insulin dysfunctional. Because the cells don’t get what they need due to the blockage, they communicate with the pancreas telling it to release MORE insulin, and thus begins the vicious cycle, leading to insulin resistance. The pancreas will do what it’s told – it will keep releasing insulin, making blood sugar levels skyrocket. SO – our blood will have too much sugar, and our cells won’t have enough. This blockage literally starves our cells and this is why we crave sugar! It also makes our blood sugar levels much too high, which inhibits insulin from doing what it’s intended to do – REMOVE glucose from our blood.
Another function of insulin is to allow amino acids (protein) into our cells, which converts to muscle protein. High blood sugar increases the AMOUNT of insulin but reduces its FUNCTION. On the flip side, insulin STOPS fat burning. So! When we have too much insulin in our bodies, we are NOT burning fat, and we are NOT allowing the amino acids into our cells to convert to muscle protein. Therefore, we are storing fat while gaining NO muscle. This is a bodybuilder’s worst nightmare! This is why it’s so important to understand insulin, and to build up insulin sensitivity. Insulin resistance = BAD. Insulin sensitivity = GOOD.
So, how do we manipulate insulin in our bodies, specifically to build muscle? Obviously cutting out refined sugar is the first step. Also, increasing your potassium intake by eating lots of vegetables! Potassium is the key mineral that allows glucose to be stored as glycogen in the liver. Without enough potassium, this process cannot happen as the glycogen cannot bind to the liver for storage. Intermittent fasting is another way to manipulate insulin sensitivity. Since there is so much sugar in the food we eat, even the good foods, going through short periods of eating much less, less frequently can help to regulate our insulin levels. It’s important to note when you are fasting that the meals you do eat are high in fat (good fats! – think fish oil, avocado, nuts, salmon) so that the energy we get from our food is prolonged. Apple cider vinegar has also been proven to help with insulin resistance due to it being high in acetic acid. Acetic acid lowers insulin and decreases blood sugar, so anything high in acetic acid (lemons, pickles, kombucha) will naturally lower insulin levels. Cinnamon has also been proven to be an effective way to lower blood sugar and cholesterol.
Also, of course, exercise. Exercise stimulates the growth hormone, which allows the amino acids (protein) we eat to convert to muscle protein. Normal insulin levels are needed for this process, and as I think I’ve made pretty clear by this point, sugar inhibits insulin’s ability to do its job. SO.
Step one: cut your sugar intake WAY down, and remove refined sugar completely from your diet.
Step two: Be active and allow yourself proper recovery time. It is important to know however, that cortisol (stress) is released when we exercise which increases insulin – so when we are training, we need to be particularly aware of what we’re putting into our bodies afterwards. This is when the body will need some carbs. When the body exercises, it releases insulin, converts the carbs to glucose and allows them into our cells. So really, post-workout is the perfect time to have your largest intake of carbs.
Step three: be hyper-aware of what you’re eating!
In order to burn fat and gain muscle (and really, gains aside – in order to be an overall healthy human being), our insulin levels need to be normal. Not too high, not too low. The amount of sugar our bodies need for insulin to be normal is 1 teaspoon. When you consider that the average human body has roughly 1.5 gallons of blood, it’s a bit startling to think that in order for our insulin levels to be normal, we ONLY need 1 teaspoon of sugar. For our ENTIRE BODY. The average person consumes 21-22 teaspoons of sugar PER DAY (most of the studies I read were American so I did some research into average sugar consumption in the UK and it’s about the same.) THINK ABOUT THAT! That is 22 TIMES the sugar we need. This is absolutely catastrophic to the process of insulin, and if this amount is taken in consistently every single day, it would be a miracle if we all DIDN’T get diabetes! Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are into fitness and nutrition and you probably consume much less than the average person, but it could still be too much! If all this doesn’t make you pay attention to what you’re putting into your body – I don’t know what will.
Dr. Eric Berg