Every single day, countless people worldwide, from all walks of life, wake up in a morning unhappy with their weight. A good percentage of people are unhappy due to the fact that they don’t weigh enough, but generally speaking, most people unhappy with their weight are unhappy because they are carrying too much body fat. Unless you’re very fortunate, you yourself will probably struggle with your weight at some point or another, but is there anything that can be done. Well yes, as it turns out, there is actually quite a lot that can be done. Losing fat is difficult, and although on paper it simply appears to be a case of eating less and exercising more, as we all know, the world isn’t quite that black and white. In reality, there are many factors that could influence a person’s weight, and their ability to burn fat. Take insulin for example, or more specifically: insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity can influence a person’s weight in a wide variety of different mechanisms, but exactly why is that and how does the process work? To help add a little transparency, here’s a detailed look at how insulin sensitivity can affect your weight.
Insulin and its role in the body
Before we dive into the good stuff and look at how you could potentially use insulin sensitivity to your advantage, it’s first imperative that we understand exactly what insulin is. Insulin is a hormone synthesized and secreted by the pancreas inside the human body. There are many different hormones in the body yet insulin is, without question, one of the most important ones that you will ever encounter. In simple terms, the body needs insulin to allow it to utilize glucose (sugar) from carbohydrates that you consume, as its main source of energy. Any excess glucose that you don’t need right away, rather than simply letting it go to waste, instead, the body takes it and stores it for use at a later date. This hormone is quite remarkable for keeping your blood sugar levels stable. You see, not only does insulin help to prevent hypoglycaemia, which is when blood sugar levels are too low, it also prevents hyperglycaemia, which is when blood sugar levels are too high. Having unstable blood glucose levels on either side of the spectrum, can be dangerous for a wide range of different reasons.
In the human body, our cells need energy at all times, which means that they require glucose. Now, you’d think that you could simply chug down a glass of fruit juice, or a glucose energy drink, and nourish your cells that way, but alas, things are never that simple. The problem is that the vast majority of your cells are actually very picky with what they accept as fuel, and therefore many of them will not allow sugar to be directly used as energy. When we eat foods containing carbohydrates or simple sugars, blood sugar levels begin to increase. Your pancreas however, recognises this, or rather, the cells in the pancreas recognise this, and signal for it to secrete insulin. Insulin shuttles nutrients and sugars from the bloodstream into the cells, and how it is able to do this is quite remarkable. Insulin is able to attach itself to your cells and signals for them to absorb the glucose from your bloodstream and use it for energy. Basically, if you think of insulin as a key, which unlocks the doors to your cells, allowing the glucose sugars to enter, that is a very basic premise of what insulin is all about.
What is insulin sensitivity?
So, now that we’ve looked at insulin and its primary role in the human body, it is now time to take a look at insulin sensitivity. In the body, if you consume more sugar than is needed for fuel, rather than allowing this useful energy to go to waste, your body, thrifty as it is, stores it for use at a later date. Again, insulin is required as this hormone helps the body to store excess glucose in the liver. When blood sugar levels begin to drop, this glucose is actually secreted from the liver. However, sometimes the body simply realizes that additional fuel is required, I.E during exercise and physical activity, which is again when excess glucose is released. However, fluctuations in insulin secretion can potentially lead to insulin sensitivity issues, and that’s what we’ll be focussing on now. In basic terms, as the name implies, insulin sensitivity is a term which describes how sensitive to insulin a person is. If you are sensitive to insulin you will require less insulin than the average person. This is because, due to your sensitivity to the hormone, less will be needed to help stabilize your blood glucose levels and provide energy for your cells.
Different types of insulin sensitivity
When talking of insulin sensitivity there are actually two forms of insulin sensitivity to familiarize yourself with. There are people with high insulin sensitivity, and there are people with low insulin sensitivity. If you suffer with low insulin sensitivity, people may refer to this as being insulin resistant. This means that currently, the amount of insulin your pancreas secretes, just is not sufficient enough to stabilize your blood glucose levels. Suffering with insulin resistance is a sign of diabetes as it indicates your body is struggling to metabolize glucose and stabilize blood sugar levels. Low insulin sensitivity can be dangerous because, to help make up for the fact that current levels of insulin are not working, the pancreas may be forced to work harder to try to produce more. Like a motor, or any other device, the harder it works the more likely it will be to breakdown. In some cases, insulin resistance can lead to diabetes when the pancreas simply breaks down and is unable to cope with the current demand for insulin. In this instance, insulin injections, or medication such as metformin, may be required.
In terms of high insulin sensitivity, many experts agree that generally, this indicates good health in a person because it means less insulin is needed to do its job, which is obviously less taxing on your pancreas, liver, and metabolism in general. However, and yes, there’s always a however, if you suffer with type 1 diabetes, high insulin sensitivity could put you at a greater risk of low blood sugar in the form of hypoglycaemia. What’s more, as physical exercise calls for additional energy, sometimes this too can bring on low blood sugar levels for individuals using insulin injections, or on similar medications.
How insulin sensitivity can affect your weight
So far, we’ve learned a great deal about insulin and its role in the body, but we haven’t yet addressed how insulin sensitivity can affect your weight. So, for all of you out there looking to get ripped and shredded for the New Year, pay close attention to this next section, as it could prove to be extremely useful. In terms of changing the overall composition of your physique, insulin sensitivity is vitally important. For people looking to lose fat, insulin sensitivity is vital for several reasons. You see, if you are insulin resistant, generally you will find that your body will look to store more of the food that you consume as a source of energy. ‘Great’, you’re probably thinking, that means that you get an emergency supply of energy when you feel tired and weak. Well, not exactly. You see, the problem is that, when you are insulin resistant, the energy your body stores for later is stored in the form of body fat. That’s right, those love handles you’re struggling to get rid of, are ironically there because your body is trying to help you. What’s more, experts have also recently found that there is a direct link between visceral body fat, and insulin resistance. Visceral body fat is very dangerous as it is body fat that is stored directly around your abdomen and mid-section, which is where many of your vital organs are kept. This layer of fat can put additional strain and pressure on your organs, plus it often leads to conditions such as fatty liver disease, which is literally where the liver becomes coated in a layer of fat. As you have probably figured out, this is not a good thing and it is extremely dangerous.
High insulin sensitivity and muscle mass
Now, having high insulin sensitivity can actually be beneficial, and you can potentially use this to your advantage. As mentioned, with high insulin sensitivity, your body can utilize carbohydrates more efficiently, with less insulin. This is great for athletic performance because it means that even the smallest amounts of carbs can create a spike in insulin levels, which will then help shuttle more nutrients into your cells, allowing them to work harder and provide you with more energy.
For individuals looking to increase their muscle mass, insulin is also very important following a workout. You see, after you finish training in the gym, the cells in your muscles will pretty much be completely empty because they, like you, are so spent. They also expand in volume slightly, and are therefore more anabolically-primed for maximum nutrient absorption. This period of limited cellular expansion is known as the ‘anabolic window’ and generally it lasts around 30 – 45 minutes after you finish training. During the anabolic window, because the cells are empty, are crying out for fuel, and have increased in volume slightly, this is the perfect time to feed them with proteins, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, oxygen, and glucose energy. Once the cells have the necessary nutrients, muscle protein synthesis can be initiated, which then begins the post-workout recovery process, where your muscles repair themselves. So, chugging down a protein shake would do the job, right? Sadly, not exactly. Experts recommend whey protein mixed with water after training as this, speeds up the absorption time but it certainly won’t allow all of these nutrients to make their way into your muscle cells quickly enough. No, we need something to speed up the process. Something like a simple sugar that creates a spike in insulin. After training, many bodybuilders will deliberately eat some candy or mix a scoop of dextrose sugar into their protein shake, in order to initiate a spike in insulin levels. This insulin then takes the glucose in the blood, and shuttles it directly into your awaiting muscle cells. What is also does however, is take all of the proteins, vitamins, amino acids, and other nutrients, also found in your bloodstream, and crams those in there too for good measure. Individuals sensitive to insulin will see a faster response in insulin secretion. Once your cells have what they need, the post-workout recovery process can begin. Hoorah!
How to improve your insulin sensitivity
So, as you can see, generally being slightly more sensitive to insulin than average does have its advantages. You can also see how detrimental insulin resistance can be. If you are looking to increase your insulin sensitivity, try these useful tips:
Consume foods with a low glycaemic index
One of the most effective ways of helping to reduce insulin resistance is to consume foods which have a naturally low Glycaemic Index (GI). Basically, look for whole foods as opposed to refined foods, and avoid foods containing simple sugars. Foods with a low GI help to gradually increase glucose levels in the bloodstream, rather than causing a sudden surge in the case of simple sugars. By helping to regular blood glucose levels slowly, this in turn helps to regulate the secretion of insulin. Foods rich in dietary fiber, I.E wholegrains, whole wheat, and starchy vegetables, all work very well in this instance.
Increase magnesium consumption
Everyday, we require different minerals for different reasons. Zinc for example, helps to boost immunity, whereas iron is vital for haemoglobin production in the blood. But what about magnesium? Well, one of magnesium’s primary roles is that it functions to help sensitize the body to insulin. It does this by targeting insulin receptors in our cells, and basically enables them to utilize insulin more efficiently. Numerous studies have found that daily magnesium supplementation has been found to enhance glucose tolerance and increase insulin sensitivity. As well as supplementing with magnesium, it’s also vital that you consume magnesium-rich whole foods, I.E leafy green vegetables, as well as nuts and seeds.
Cut out liquid sugars
Liquid sugars in the form of sodas and fruit juices, have been found to be one of the leading causes of insulin resistance and they have been linked with a wide range of health conditions. Now, we know that fresh fruit juice is packed full of vitamins and nutrients, but it is also rich in fructose sugars, so try to limit yourself to one glass per day. When too much fructose is consumed, insulin signalling is interrupted and disrupted, which means that it is often stored in the form of body fat. This is yet another reason why many health experts and nutritionists are pushing for sugar-laden beverages to be banned.
Try to watch your carb intakes
Unless you are following a ketogenic diet plan, you will require carbohydrates on a daily basis. However, it is important to note that in order to help improve your insulin sensitivity, you will need to ensure that you optimize your carbohydrate intakes. This basically means that you should not consume more carbs than your body requires. There are calculators online to help give you a better idea of how many you should be consuming, plus you need to consider your own basic needs and personal circumstances. For example, if you regularly go to the gym and take part in physical activity several times per week, your body will require more energy than a sedentary individual, meaning that you will need more carbohydrates than a person that gets very little exercise and physical activity. With that said however, if you take in more carbs than your body requires, this can lead to insulin fluctuations, as well as weight gain, which is far from ideal.
Exercise is vital for many reasons, including, as it turns out, for improving insulin sensitivity. During exercise, your muscles use virtually all of the glucose found naturally in your bloodstream to provide you with the energy needed to train. The more you train the higher the demand, which forces the body to become more adaptable and to utilize insulin more efficiently. Basically, by exercising you can help to train your body to become more sensitive to insulin, to help make it stretch further.