Like anything our body produces naturally, there is a good and bad level. Insulin is essential to life, but it’s just the chronic overproduction that turns a good thing into a bad thing. By maintaining an optimal balance between insulin and glucagon, you become like an ATM machine, always open for deposits and withdrawals based on your energy needs. The ideal strategy is to only use insulin you need to restock muscle and liver glycogen stores, to rebuild muscle and other tissue with amino acids, and finally, to transport fatty acids for a variety of essential metabolic functions (including energy storage). Let’s dive into how insulin works and what happens when it goes haywire.
Insulin’s role is a storage hormone. It is considered the key that opens up all cells for an array of nutrients to get inside, including sugars. However, eating more carbohydrates result in more insulin production. For this blog let’s focus on insulin’s role in delivering nutrients to liver, muscle and fat cells. Since insulin is a key opening cell doors, nutrients then can be stored inside the cell, such as glucose. It’s an elegant way to eliminate excess glucose from the bloodstream to use for a later date, without it, excess glucose is highly toxic.
Unfortunately, when you produce too much insulin things start going wrong, as had happened in our modern diet of high carbohydrates. Daily high carbohydrate meals, snacking, sugar laden drinks all tell the body to release more insulin. Muscle and liver cells are not able to store as much glycogen (the stored form of glucose), so it’s easy to exceed storage capacity. The average person can only store about 400 grams of glycogen in liver and muscle tissue. Athletes can only store roughly 600 grams. When your liver and muscles become filled with glycogen, any glucose remaining in the bloodstream that isn’t being used in “real time” by your brain or muscles (such as a workout) gets converted into triglycerides in the liver and sent to fat cells for storage.
Every time you eat, you trigger insulin. Carbohydrates trigger this fat storage hormone more than fat and protein, but revert back to the ATM metaphor. Remember insulin is not the enemy. If we ate a diet that was 100% natural for our body, insulin would still be produced. It is the chronic consumption of refined foods and the mindset of eating 6 meals per day that has gotten our hormones off kilter.
High insulin signals the fat cells to hold on to the fat and not release it for energy. If this continues, fat cells swell and you gain weight. Eventually, muscle and liver cells become insulin resistant, especially when we are sedentary. Insulin resistance simply means that cells become desensitized to insulin’s nutrient storage signals. Think of a UPS driver delivering packages at your door. If you don’t answer, they will just leave the packages on your porch to pile up. Your bloodstream is watched like a hawk, and excess blood sugar has to be converted into storage. At this point, the body’s last line of defense against excess glucose has been maxed out. All hell breaks loose in terms of glucose toxicity and insulin damage- leading to ever greater risk for diabetes, heart attack, blindness and the need for limb amputations.
An insulin-resistant liver exacerbates the situation. The “no vacancy” sign hanging on the liver (due to insulin resistance) tricks some cells into believing they are starved for glucose. In response, your genes signal to dump more glucose into the bloodstream- despite the fact there is already enough. Where does this excess glucose wander to? Those eager fat cel
ls mopping it all up.
Fat cells can’t release their stored energy into the bloodstream, because insulin keeps them inside. Fat cells get bigger and fatter, so you gain weight. More glucose stays in your bloodstream damaging other cells. Excessive insulin is very inflammatory, even leading to atherosclerosis. This drives up blood pressure.
Unless you are decreasing your carbohydrate intake, lowering the amount of meals you are eating per day and exercising to burn glycogen and fat, the more insulin your pancreas produces, the more resistant your muscle and liver can get. We might have well become blind to the fact that 80% of our supermarket shelves have a hidden form of sugar, or multiple sources of sugar. Protein bars, yogurts, pasta sauce (combined with starchy noodles), and sugary drinks all add up to hundreds of grams consumed sugars per day.
Conversely, when insulin levels are moderated with a low carbohydrate way of eating combined with exercise, your liver and muscle receptor sites become insulin sensitive- more effective at absorbing ingested nutrients.
If you deplete your muscle and liver cells with frequent intermittent fasting and intense workouts, insulin will transport nutrients into your liver and muscle instead of going straight to your fat deposits. This is why counting calories does not work for losing weight. Eating real, whole food that the earth has grown will keep insulin working in its primal fashion.