Most everyone has heard of insulin and its relationship to sugar and diabetes.
However, what does this hormone really do and why is insulin so important in its role with dispersing sugar. Here is the simple version of a complex subject.
Breaking down food is a two-step process. When you eat food, it is broken down as you chew, and then of course, it goes to the stomach where it is broken down even further. After the stomach has its way with the digested food, the food particles go to the intestines where the body can absorb those particles and dump them into the blood stream. Now these particles need help getting into the blood stream. Hello insulin!
The pancreas releases insulin when your body senses that your blood sugar has increased. Very high blood sugar levels are not good for the body, so insulin acts as a bridge between your cells and the sugar in your blood stream. Without insulin, you would be walking around all day with high amounts of sugar in the blood stream, and this is exactly what Type II diabetes is! This happens when the body becomes “insulin resistant” which means that insulin is simply not doing its job of getting rid of the sugar that is in the blood.
Sugar gets in the blood stream a lot quicker when eating simple carbohydrates or processed sugars such as pies, cakes, candy, or any foods with high amounts of sucrose (table sugar). When eating complex carbohydrates in foods such as whole grain rice, breads, oatmeal, potatoes and pasta, the sugar from these foods will go to the blood stream after being digested but at a much slower rate.
When sugar either from these simple processed carbohydrates or from complex carbs gets into the blood stream, insulin will remove the blood sugar and then store it first (in the form of glucose) in the liver. After the liver is full, insulin will direct the glucose into the muscle for energy. Any extra sugar that can no longer be used by the muscle will be stored as fat in order to lower the blood sugar back down to normal levels.
This is why (especially for diabetics) it is important to weight train to increase muscle mass. The more muscle mass, the more sugar can be stored in the muscle! However, it is sad to say that even the most muscular person on the planet is going to have a limit to how much blood glucose can be used by each muscle cell. Another important factor to note is that insulin is an anabolic hormone, in that it causes weight gain and growth.
Before your body starts pulling stored fat from fat cells for energy, it will pull stored glucose from your liver, and then your muscle cells. This is why “low carb” diets work! It is easy for the body to burn-up the stores of glucose and then go right to the fat stores! This is also why Ketogenic diets work. The body becomes more efficient at using fat for energy, which means more fat is being burned to fuel the body.
An important point to remember is that when insulin is elevated, you simply will not be burning fat. Insulin, while elevated, will also block Leptin. Leptin is a hormone that let’s your body know when it is full. One can also become Leptin resistant, which means that there is nothing to signal the brain to stop eating! To make this complex subject simple, a take away is that having high insulin levels throughout the day simply means weight gain.
So you may ask, how does one go about lowering their blood glucose and insulin levels to burn more fat? The number one thing is to cut back on your carbohydrates, especially those processed sugars. “Complex” or slow digesting carbs, as stated earlier, will keep blood sugar levels steady and they will remain steady for much longer periods of time. However, it is important to remember that one can still gain weight by eating complex carbohydrates or healthier foods, this is why portion control for body size and activity levels are so important.
Another important factor on just how to keep one’s insulin levels low is by consuming a higher protein diet. Protein is the only macronutrient that is not stored in the body. Taking in more protein will also help curb one’s appetite. This, along with, (as stated earlier) a consistent weight-training program, is very important for the control of insulin, maintaining a healthy body weight, and for overall optimum health.
Europa Sports Products Fitness/Wellness Coordinator
Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Appalachian State University 1984-1990
Strength & Conditioning Coach Charlotte Hornets NBA team 1990-2001