I never gave insulin much thought. I wasn’t diabetic; my blood sugar levels were within the normal range so I never imagined that I might have a problem with insulin. I think most of us probably think the same way – insulin is really only something you need to worry about if you’re diabetic. Here’s the truth: if you want to burn fat and get healthy, you need to understand and control insulin. If you’re carrying extra weight and having a hard time getting it off, you MUST pay attention to insulin. It’s not optional. Fortunately, it’s not hard to do if you make the right choices at mealtime.
Insulin became a problem for me (without me knowing it) because I spent years in the carbohydrate cycle. Maybe you recognize it? I’d wake up in the morning and have a bowl of cereal and some juice. Having not eaten since dinner the night before, my body would react to the rapid influx of carbohydrates in that meal, sending my blood sugar through the roof and giving me a burst of needed energy. Insulin arrives in response to my elevated blood sugar, as it’s job is to clear the sugar from the blood and take it to it’s storage place. As fast as my blood sugar rose, it plummets as there was nothing in my meal to keep it steady (like fat or protein). That energy I experienced? It’s gone. Not only that, low blood sugar tells the body that we need more fuel. That triggers hunger as well as cravings for carbohydrates, as your body knows that’s the fasted way to get that blood sugar back up. So now, only an hour or two after eating, I’m hungry again, I’m tired, and I’m craving more carbohydrates. That low blood sugar has also trigged a stress response from my body so now there’s this uneasy sense of urgency – “I gotta have sugar NOW!”. So, I’m human. I’d go get a sugary granola bar or snack out of a box of crackers. Annnnnnd we’re right back in the damn cycle! As if being hungry, tired, moody and craving sweets weren’t bad enough, we’re storing fat all the while! If you feel hungry shortly after eating, if you struggle with energy swings throughout the day and regularly crave carbohydrates, you might be stuck in the carb cycle, too!
Our body’s capacity to store glucose/sugar is limited to about 400 grams (not each day – in total). After this low threshold is met, excess glucose not needed for immediate energy is converted to triglycerides (fat) and sent to be stored or continues to circulate in the blood. Your high insulin levels also signal your cells to hold onto the fat and not release it for energy.
You are either in fat-storing mode or in fat-burning mode. You’re always in one or the other and you cannot be in both. The determining factor? Insulin. Carbohydrates control insulin and insulin controls fat storage. Your dietary choices determine whether or not you’re allowing insulin to work for you. You’re either eating to trigger fat storage, accelerated aging and inflammation or you’re eating to allow insulin to help you burn through your fat stores.
Here’s a quick run down of how high blood sugar and excess insulin are impacting your health.
- Chronic high insulin levels cause your cells become resistant to it. It’s always around, so they stop responding. You know how after listening to loud music for a while it doesn’t seem so loud? The same thing is happening to your cells. Insulin is always around sending these loud signals and your body just gets used to it and begins to ignore it. When your cells stop responding to insulin, not only does your blood sugar remain high, but your body perceives that it needs more insulin and keeps producing more and more, creating a cycle of increased fat storage, impaired fat burning and excess insulin production.
- When insulin resistance prevents glucose from getting into your cells, your cells think there isn’t enough glucose in your body and so they initiate a process called gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogensis is the process of generating more glucose and dumping it into the blood stream for energy. Of course this energy isn’t needed and likely gets stored as fat.
- Your blood sugar stays elevated for longer than normal since insulin can’t efficiently clear it – this leads to the formation of Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs. This process accelerates aging (they’re appropriately named, huh?) by triggering inflammation, neuropathy, fine lines and wrinkles and much more.
- Chronically elevated blood sugar is bad news, but so is the chronically elevated insulin that comes along with it! This can lead to systemic inflammation, heart disease and impaired blood flow.
- Your pancreas will eventually get tired of over-producing insulin. When this happens, you may become “insulin dependent” – requiring injections of insulin to help control blood sugar.
- Excess insulin wreaks havoc on your hormones. It can decrease your body’s production of growth hormone, which is essential for energy, repair, metabolism, immunity, libido and much more.
- Insulin resistance decreases certain thyroid hormones slowing your metabolism while increasing fat storage and decreasing your energy levels.
- Elevated insulin decreases sex hormone synthesis, which negatively impacts your menstrual cycle, fertility, mood, sex drive and more.
- Chronically elevated insulin encourages fat storage. The more fat you have, the more of the hormone leptin you produce. Just like you can become insulin resistant, you are likely to become leptin resistant. Leptin is responsible for signaling the brain that you’ve had enough to eat. When you’re leptin resistant, your brain has a hard time receiving those signals and don’t experience that “I’m full” feeling.
- Elevated insulin prevents glucagon from doing it’s job. Glucagon is a hormone that is required for fat to be allowed to leave fat cells and travel to be burned as energy. Glucagon will not operate in the presence of elevated insulin.
Scary stuff, huh? The reality is that this is what’s happening to your body when you eat a high carbohydrate diet rich in processed foods or you don’t move your body regularly. It’s compounded if you’re eating poorly AND not exercising.
The GREAT news here is that most of us have the power to control our blood sugar, moderate our insulin release, make our bodies highly sensitive to insulin and become a fat-burning machine!
When your body is highly sensitive to insulin, it signals your genes to create more receptor sites for insulin making you even MORE sensitive to insulin! When you exercise regularly, you repeatedly deplete the glucose stored there, allowing your next meal to refill those stores instead of being stored as fat. Your body becomes highly efficient at utilizing nutrients and drawing on fat stores for additional energy needs.
So, the take away? Your diet and lifestyle choices tell your body to get fat and stay fat, or get lean and stay lean. Whatever choice you make, your body is going to compound it. So where to start?
- Eat to control your blood sugar. This means avoiding processed foods and grains. Build your meals around healthy fats, protein and vegetables.
- Aim to get at least 3 high intensity workouts in each week. This will work to deplete your glycogen stores and teach your body how to be energy efficient
Take it one meal, one day at a time. You’ll feel the difference. We cannot deny the link between hormones and fat loss. If you want to achieve fat loss, you MUST eat to optimize your hormones.
Want more specifics on how to eat the right carbs at the right time and lose fat almost effortlessly? Check out this training I did last week!