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Insulin: Friend or Foe? What You Need To Know

By Jerry Teixeira February 26, 2014

If you’re an athlete who is concerned with your physical performance as well as your current body weight and overall body composition, one natural hormone you need to fully understand is insulin.

Often called the most ‘anabolic’ hormone in the body, insulin can make you weak, or it can make you strong, it can make you fat or it can make you lean. This hormone promotes tissue building thus encourages body weight gain. Insulin is a hormone that is very important to the body and is released in everyone – athletes and non-athletes alike. The key to making insulin work in our favor is to learn to control our body’s secretion of it.

When we structure our diet properly and maintain good control over our body’s release of insulin at various points in the day, we can see much better results in terms of our performance, recovery as well as with any desired changes in body composition level we’d like to attain.

Here is a look at a few of the important things that everyone should know about insulin, so we can make the most of what this hormone has to offer.

What Insulin Does

Insulin’s role is to make nutrients in the bloodstream available to body tissues and so by doing, insulin helps to build up tissues in the body. Whether it helps to repair and build muscle mass tissue or fat mass is highly dependent on our choices of foods and our activity level at the time.

Anytime we eat a form of carbohydrate, whether it is vegetables, black beans, pasta or table sugar, our body breaks it down into simple sugars and converts them into glucose, our body’s only usable form of simple sugar. When our blood’s sugar levels rise, insulin is secreted into our bloodstream to transport excess glucose to body tissues. Insulin must be present for the uptake of glucose in all body tissues except our brain.

The first stop for insulin carried glucose is our liver, where it is stored as glycogen for later use, such as during times of intense training or other physical activity, which can leave our liver glycogen stores depleted. When our liver stores are filled and there is still excess insulin carried glucose present in our bloodstream, the next stop for glucose is our muscle tissue. Glucose enters our muscles through receptor sites located along our muscles, which open only in the presence of insulin or during intense physical activity.

Once our liver and muscle tissue have all the insulin carried glucose they can take, any excess glucose will be shuttled off and quickly stored in our fat tissue. Another important point to keep in mind is our liver and muscle tissue take up glucose much slower as opposed to the way it is rapidly taken up into our fat cells. So, if blood sugar levels are raised too quickly for our liver and muscles to absorb glucose at the rate insulin is providing it, much of the glucose could end up being stored in our fat cells.

The amount of insulin that our body will release will be in direct proportion to how many carbohydrates were consumed as well as the type of carbohydrates that were consumed.

The more simple the carbohydrate, the more insulin will be released. This is because our bodies are going to try and keep our blood sugar levels by a very slim margin and when simple carbohydrates are consumed, a load of simple sugars is dumped into the blood stream, which causes the body to release a high amount of insulin to control our blood sugar levels.

On the other hand, if we eat carbohydrates that are slower digesting and slower to break down, this won’t pose as much of a threat to our blood sugar levels as these carbohydrates won’t produce the spike simple carbohydrates will. As a result, less insulin is released and glycogen is provided to our liver and muscle tissue at a slower rate.

The Effect of Insulin

So now that we know that carbohydrates are the nutrient that causes the release of insulin and it is released in order to keep blood sugar levels stable, how does this apply to us?

Well first, if we have a high intake of simple sugars and a high release of insulin in our body while we’re in an inactive state, our liver and muscle tissue most likely won’t have a need for a lot of glucose. This means our insulin will draw high levels blood sugar (glucose) almost directly into our body fat stores.

Insulin’s job is to remove glucose (the blood sugar) from our bloodstream and since no activity is being performed (or has just been performed), our muscles and/or liver won't need much of it, so the only place for it to go is to our body fat cells.

On the other hand, if we just performed a training session or are in the middle of a long training session, our muscles and liver will be partially or fully depleted of glycogen and they will need glucose as a fuel source. At this point, our muscles and liver will absorb glucose more quickly, so we want a higher release of insulin to shuttle more blood sugar into our muscles and liver more quickly.

By knowing this information we can better time our carbohydrate consumption so that we eat the majority of our carbohydrates leading up to our training sessions to load our liver and muscles with glycogen to fuel our training. We should also keep in mind to consume simple carbohydrates during or immediately following our training sessions, to provide needed energy during training and help replenish energy and assist with recovery after training. Finally, we want to consume slow digesting, complex carbohydrates during the rest of the day to control our body’s secretion of insulin and maintain steady energy throughout the day.

As we can see, insulin plays a key role in our ability to build muscle, lose fat and recover more effectively from our training sessions. Understanding insulin, what it is, what it does and how to control it, so it helps us reach our goals versus keeping us from them is going to be important for all of us. The key is to properly plan our meals so we can manage or body’s section of insulin. To do this we need to control both the volume of carbohydrates we consume as well as the type of carbohydrates we consume. Once we have our body’s secretion of insulin under control, we can accomplish our athletic goals and body composition goals much more easily.


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