Insulin Explained - Myth vs. Reality

by Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN
Author, Eating for Energy

 

Insulin is an anabolic hormone with extensive effects throughout the body, especially in regards to energy metabolism. Insulin causes most of the body's cells to take up glucose (sugar) from the blood (including liver, muscle, and fat tissue cells), storing it as glycogen in the liver and muscle, and stops the breakdown of fat to be used as an energy source.

The main stimulus for insulin release is a rise in blood sugar levels as a result of food consumption. Thus, the more you eat, the more often insulin will be released. This is important to consider, especially if you want to lose weight, since insulin is the main hormone responsible for storing sugars and fats after being fed.

In other words, insulin is the primary signal that tells your body to store the energy from your food as body fat and glycogen. When insulin levels are high, you are in storage mode, plain and simple. What’s more, when insulin is elevated, you are unable to release fat from your fat stores. Stated otherwise, when your insulin is high, your fat isn’t going anywhere.

When insulin is absent (or very low), glucose is not taken up by the body’s cells and can begin to accumulate in the blood, leading to blood sugar irregularities such as hypoglycemia and eventually diabetes.

Since insulin is an important hormone to understand, the following will help you dispel some of its common myths.

 

MYTH: Insulin release is not affected by the type of carbohydrate that you consume.

REALITY: Insulin IS affected by the type of carbohydrate that you consume. Any refined carbohydrates (ie. white bread/pasta/rice, sugars, etc…) that you eat will cause an immediate rise in blood sugar since they are easily metabolized. Because of this surge in blood sugar, a greater amount of insulin will be released to store the excess blood sugar.

Conversely, eating whole grains (ie. whole or sprouted wheat, quinoa, brown rice) that contain plenty of fiber and minerals (such as chromium which assists insulin) will lessen the blood sugar surge and thus the resulting amount of insulin that is released from the pancreas.

 

MYTH: People with Type II Diabetes don’t produce enough insulin.

REALITY: People with Type II Diabetes DO produce adequate insulin but their cells are simply less sensitive to the hormone. This is a result of chronically high levels of sugar (and corresponding insulin levels) in the blood. If the body’s cells are constantly exposed to high insulin levels, as a result of excess blood sugar, they become “desensitized” and no longer respond to insulin correctly.

Thankfully, Type II Diabetes is manageable and reversible by maintaining a regular workout schedule and a natural whole foods diet that is very low in refined sugars and sweets.

 

MYTH: Eating small frequent meals throughout the day is the best way to reduce your insulin levels.

REALITY: While eating frequent small meals, or meals with a low ‘glycemic index’ (a measure of the meal’s effect on blood sugar) may help you ‘control’ or ‘even out’ your insulin levels, fasting for as little as 24 hours has been shown to drastically reduce your insulin levels!

In research conducted on people who fasted for 72 hours, plasma insulin dropped dramatically, reaching a level that was less than half of the their initial levels. What’s even more impressive is that 70% of this reduction happened during the first 24 hours of fasting.

 

MYTH: Adding healthy fats, fiber, and/or protein to a carbohydrate-based meal has no effect on insulin levels.

REALITY: Complementing a carb-based meal with healthy fats (ie. olive oil, avocado, coconut, flax oil), fiber, and protein (ie. nuts and seeds, legumes, fish) can attenuate the release of insulin. This occurs because these nutrients all assist in lowering the “glycemic load” of the given meal, which means that your blood sugar (and thus insulin) levels will not rise as high or as quickly as they would with a carb-only meal.

Considering that insulin plays a pivotal role in obesity and diabetes, it is important to understand how you can maintain “normal” insulin levels. With the help of the above-mentioned facts and a natural whole foods diet that is low in sugar, you will greatly improve your health and prevent excess gain.

One more point to commit to memory is that exercise has the same effect on blood sugar as insulin. In other words, exercise facilitates glucose uptake into your body’s cells! So now, you have yet another reason to ensure that you are exercising on a daily basis.

 

REFERENCES:

Halberg N, et al. Effect of intermittent fasting and refeeding on insulin action in healthy men. Journal of Applied Physiology 2005; 99:2128-2136

Klein S, et al. Progressive Alterations in lipid and glucose metabolism during short-term fasting in young adult men. American Journal of Physiology 1993; 265 (Endocrinology and metabolism 28): E801-E806

 

 

 

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