Two phrases I’ve used quite a lot, and never fully explained, are “insulin resistance” and “insulin sensitivity”. If you know what these terms mean, and how to alter them, you can drastically improve your metabolism, and by extension, your health.
Perhaps you’ve heard the term insulin resistance before as it is commonly understood as a part of diabetes. This is a rather limited view of a complex process.
Whenever food is consumed, the pancreas releases insulin to notify the cells of the body to absorb and store nutrients. This process is particularly active whenever sugars are consumed because they must be used immediately or stored to prevent their toxic characteristics from damaging the body. However, if glycogen stores are already full, cells become resistant to this insulin, meaning they can’t absorb more, and the sugars ends up flooding the bloodstream. This starts a dangerous cycle where the pancreas continues to produce more insulin in an attempt to clear the sugars from the bloodstream and, eventually, the sugars are forced into fat storage.
An important detail to note is that, for average people, fat accumulation in the body is not attributable to consumption of dietary fat, but rather the overconsumption of carbohydrates that are all broken down into sugars.
This process of insulin release is repeated until the cells in the body cannot utilize fat as energy and the entire metabolic system becomes dependent on constant sugar feedings or insulin injections…also known as Type II diabetes.
During this process, the arteries harden from the inflammatory and toxic nature of sugars, causing atherosclerosis. Nerve damage can ensue, leading to blindness. Also, the cells become resistant to amino acids so the muscles can’t even use protein.
Some symptoms of insulin resistance include:
- An energy crash, feeling of low-blood sugar, brain-fog, or fatigue within a few hours of consuming a large carb meal.
- Increased hunger and sugar cravings.
- Weight accumulation, particularly around the midsection and hips.
- Elevated triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood sugar.
Insulin and carbs are not inherently bad. They both serve an important purpose of storing energy for intense activity or times of stress and famine. However, it is estimated that for the first 200,000 years of our existence, humans consumed about 80 grams of carbs a day (varying by location). These carb were in the form of tough, fibrous vegetables and roots. The insulin release would be so minor that the cells of the body would stay primed to receive glucose.
Insulin sensitivity is the exact opposite of insulin resistance. Insulin sensitivity suggests that the muscles are prepared to absorb glucose from the bloodstream with the aid of insulin.
I will list the most effective ways of promoting insulin sensitivity:
- Moderating carb intake based on activity level.
- Short periods of fasting where the body is encouraged to use fat as energy and break sugar dependence.
- Consuming nutritious carbs such as fruits and vegetables that also contain fiber, mitigating insulin release.
- Eating enough fat with every meal to blunt insulin secretion.
- High-intensity interval training during which the body can only use glycogen as fuel.
- Weight-lifting and other forms of exercise that place a demand upon the muscles and trains the metabolism to partition nutrients.
To put these tactics into a real-world context, I will explain my approach to maintaining insulin sensitivity:
On days I don’t work out, I limit my carb intake to a couple pieces of fruit and fibrous carbs. On my training days, I consume a large carb meal within 30 minutes of my workout to replenish glycogen stores.
On Friday, I have my last meal around 8 PM. On Saturday, around 11 AM, I walk to a steep hill where I do 10 to 15 sprint intervals in a fasted state. I walk home, stretch, shower, and have breakfast about an hour after my workout. In all, I fast about 16 hours. I’ll discuss fasting in another post because it can be a very effective, but potentially risky, method of improving health.
There are many other factors that can contribute to insulin resistance including vitamin D deficiency, heightened cortisol, highly acidic diets (building meals around grains instead of vegetables), consumption of trans-fats and oxidized poly-fats, and omega-3 deficiency.
Some studies suggest high-fat diets are a leading cause of insulin resistance but these studies merely replaced each gram of carbs with a gram of fat, resulting in an enormous calorie excess due to the fact that fats have 9 calories per gram and carbs only have 4. The most reliable study I have come across shows that after 12 weeks of replacing grains and dairy with vegetables and fruits, a type 2 diabetes diagnosis was completely reversed…meaning the body became insulin sensitive again.
So, if you experience sugar cravings or a blood sugar crash after eating, maybe try eating lower carb on the days you aren’t as active. Also, try to substitute nutritious carbs, such as vegetables and fruits, for less nutritious foods such as soda and snack bars filled with sugars and grains. Finally, throw in a tough workout every few days to create a demand within the muscles for any carbs you consume.
If you’d like me to recommend a more specific carb intake for your activity level, let me know!