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Master your insulin to add muscle and burn fat

Insulin has a huge influence not only on how quickly or slowly you build lean muscle mass and burn stubborn body fat levels, but on almost every single aspect of your life. Here’s how to better control this master hormone to live the fitter, healthier and longer life you want, says New Body Plan’s Joe Warner

In the complex theatre of your body, every metabolic performance hinges on a quiet protagonist: insulin. But rather than basking in the limelight, this important hormone diligently orchestrates from the backstage, managing energy, blood sugar levels, and underpinning growth and repair.

Amidst the clamour of the latest and greatest nutritional strategies, such as the keto diet or carnivore diet, and amongst the best new fat-loss exercise plans or muscle-building training regimes, the pivotal role of insulin operates in the background. But it deserves a front-row seat in your health and fitness strategy. Allow us to draw back the curtain and spotlight insulin’s essential function in your unique health and fitness story.

TL;DR Insulin conducts the flow of glucose in your bloodstream, channels energy into cells, and plays a pivotal role in muscle growth and fat storage. Leveraging this hormone to your advantage – by implementing a balanced diet, lifting weights, doing cardio, and quality sleep – can be key to hitting fitness milestones. However, unchecked insulin can lead to insulin resistance, a precursor to serious health issues in both the short and long term.

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What is insulin and why should I care about it?

Insulin is a hormone produced by the beta cells in your pancreas. Its primary job is to regulate the amount of glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream and facilitate the absorption of this glucose into your body’s cells for energy.

So why should you care about this behind-the-scenes hormone? Here’s why: it is central to your body’s energy management, meaning it has a direct impact on your health, fitness, and overall wellbeing.

In the context of fitness, insulin can be your greatest ally or a significant obstacle, depending on how it’s managed. On the positive side, it aids in muscle growth by driving amino acids into muscle cells, promoting protein synthesis, and discouraging muscle breakdown. It helps ensure your hard work in the gym doesn’t go to waste. It also plays a crucial role in fat metabolism, storing excess energy for future use.

However, if your insulin regulation is out of whack – such as in insulin resistance, where cells are less responsive to the hormone – it can lead to numerous health issues, including obesity, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease. Insulin resistance also impedes muscle growth and promotes fat storage, posing challenges to your fitness goals.

Additionally, when you consume meals high in simple sugars or refined carbohydrates, your body responds by releasing a large amount of insulin. This spike can lead to an energy crash and hunger pangs shortly afterwards, disrupting your nutritional plan and making it harder to stick to your diet.

The bottom line? Understanding and managing this hormone effectively is not just about keeping chronic diseases at bay. It’s also key to optimising your health, fitness, and athletic performance.

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How does insulin affect muscle growth?

It plays a starring role in the muscle-building scene. It behaves like a doorman at a club, allowing nutrients such as glucose and amino acids into your muscle cells. The presence of these nutrients in muscle cells jump-starts the process of muscle protein synthesis, which is just the technical term for muscle growth and repair. Moreover, it also has anti-catabolic properties, meaning it suppresses the breakdown of muscle protein, helping preserve your hard-earned gains.

It’s important, though, not to overemphasise its role in muscle growth. While insulin is indeed essential, the synergy of several hormones, including testosterone and growth hormone, along with proper nutrition and exercise, truly drives muscle growth. According to a study in the American Journal of Physiology, insulin can stimulate muscle protein synthesis, but remember, it’s only one part of a wider metabolic symphony.

How does insulin affect fat storage?

While often pegged as the bad guy in the fat loss narrative, it actually plays a dual role in fat metabolism. It helps convert excess glucose into a storage-friendly form called triglycerides, which are stashed away in your body’s adipose (fat) tissues. This energy conservation strategy is useful in periods of low food availability but becomes problematic when high-calorie diets are the norm.

When you eat a meal, particularly one rich in carbohydrates, your body breaks down those carbs into glucose, leading to a rise in blood sugar levels. In response, your pancreas secretes insulin to ferry this glucose into your body’s cells, including fat cells. If there is more glucose than your body needs immediately for energy, insulin aids in storing this surplus in fat cells as triglycerides.

However, it’s worth noting that fat storage isn’t inherently bad; it’s the imbalance between fat storage and fat burning that leads to weight gain. A paper published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation notes that insulin can promote obesity under certain conditions, but it’s the balance of your total metabolic environment that truly matters.

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What is insulin resistance and how does it affect my health?

This happens when your body’s cells don’t respond to insulin as well as they should. This resistance means that glucose can’t easily enter your cells, leading to elevated blood glucose levels. Your pancreas then goes into overdrive, producing even more insulin in an effort to help glucose enter cells. This overproduction can cause an excess of the hormone in your blood, a condition known as hyperinsulinemia.

Insulin resistance doesn’t just up the risk for type-2 diabetes, it also affects your fitness journey by impeding muscle growth and promoting fat storage. It’s like having a key (insulin) that no longer fits the lock (insulin receptors on cells), disrupting the entire metabolic chain reaction. As explained in a study published in Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, insulin resistance can reduce muscle protein synthesis and is associated with increased adiposity.

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What foods cause insulin to spike?

Foods high in simple sugars or refined carbohydrates are infamous for triggering sharp insulin spikes. These include foods and drinks laden with added sugars, like fizzy drinks, biscuits, and white bread, as well as highly-processed grains. The rapid absorption of these foods leads to a swift and dramatic increase in blood glucose, which in turn leads to a surge in insulin to manage the sudden influx of glucose.

On the flip side, foods high in fibre, protein, and healthy fats have a more gradual, less dramatic impact on blood glucose and insulin. Examples of such foods include lean proteins (like chicken and fish), whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats (like avocados and nuts). These foods cause a slower, more manageable release of glucose into the bloodstream, leading to a gentler rise in insulin.

How does exercise affect insulin levels?

Exercise is a potent ally in managing levels. Regular physical activity enhances insulin sensitivity, allowing your body to use insulin more effectively and keep blood sugar levels in check. This increased sensitivity means your cells are better able to absorb and use glucose, reducing the demand for insulin.

Moreover, exercise triggers your muscles to take up more glucose, independent of insulin, effectively lowering blood glucose levels. Importantly, this insulin-sensitising effect of exercise isn’t just short-lived; it can persist for hours or even days post-workout. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology reinforces the importance of exercise, stating that it can improve insulin sensitivity in both healthy individuals and those with metabolic disorders.

What role does sleep play in insulin regulation?

Quality sleep is often overlooked in discussions about insulin regulation, but it shouldn’t be. Poor sleep or chronic sleep deprivation can sabotage insulin sensitivity and wreak havoc on blood sugar control. It can also lead to a surge in hunger hormones, prompting overeating and contributing to weight gain, further complicating insulin management.

Several studies have shown that insufficient sleep can increase the risk of developing insulin resistance and, consequently, type-2 diabetes. One study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that even short-term sleep restriction can significantly decrease insulin sensitivity. The takeaway? Don’t skimp on your shut-eye if you’re serious about your health and fitness.

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5 ways to control and manage your insulin levels

  1. Balanced diet: Prioritise a diet rich in whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats to manage insulin levels.
  2. Regular exercise: Engage in consistent physical activity to enhance sensitivity.
  3. Limit refined carbohydrates: Minimise intake of refined carbs and sugary foods that cause dramatic spikes.
  4. Quality sleep: Ensure consistent, quality sleep to support optimal regulation.
  5. Routine check-ups: Regular health check-ups can help detect any disruptions in regulation early.

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