An introduction to your body’s most carb-dependent hormone
Welcome to the first in a new series of health & fitness articles by JOOMPA Personal Training, Kuala Lumpur. The aim is to equip you with the basic knowledge to take your lifestyle, nutrition and training into your own hands and make educated decisions on a day-to-day basis. We will explore various aspects of your health and aim to provide an unbiased education to combat the various influenced sources online. If you’re going to understand the upcoming articles in our series, you’re going to need a basic understanding of the main hormone that is directly influenced by what you eat.
There are many hormones that are controlled by the foods you consume, but insulin is the most relevant when looking at weight management because it controls how sugars are used by your body and fat is stored. A strong understanding of its function makes you able to dispel myths of it being something bad, and empowers you to ensure it’s something you manage appropriately.
Let’s begin. When you eat carbohydrates, they are digested by your stomach into glucose (a form of sugar that can be used for energy by your cells) and released into your blood stream. Your body either needs this glucose to be received by your cells for energy or (in the event you’ve consumed more than can be immediately used) stored for later. Whilst glucose is important for cell energy, it can’t be left to linger in your blood stream at high levels. This is because it passes through vital organs in your body to which excessive sugars can be toxic.
So, to ensure your blood sugar is kept stable, your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. It has a simple job: ensure the body burns glucose for fuel and distribute this glucose to cells for energy. Think of it like it flicking a switch that says “store fat, we need to burn carbs”. If you’ve been doing exercise and your muscles are low on fuel, then this is quite simple – it knows that energy is either required immediately to power or repair your muscles, or “fuel levels are low” so your muscle cells create a string of glucose cells called glycogen that can be stored usage in future body movement. Insulin heads to your muscle cells and acts like a key to unlock the cells and open them to let the glucose in for use by the cell. When you exercise you make your muscle cells much more willing to receive this “knock on the door” from insulin and open up for glucose.
This process is extremely important for muscle growth and repair, because when insulin opens the door for glucose it also lets in many other important nutrients to be efficiently absorbed and utilised. The process puts your body in an anabolic or “growth” mode, for muscle development.
If you’ve consumed a bit too much food for usage or storage in muscle cells, insulin takes them to the liver for glycogen storage there instead. It’s in the perfect form to be transported to your muscles for energy when needed. Note though, that the liver can only store about 300 calories (2 hours’ worth) of energy.
However, if you consume far more than required, then it is sent to the fat cells and converted into fatty acids for storage. In order for this energy to be accessed and fat cells to be used for energy you need to have completely depleted your muscle and liver glycogen and be in “fat burning” mode (i.e., insulin hasn’t been released due to sugar consumption) and this generally means a significant calorie deficit. We’ll explain the process of burning fats in the next article.
Issues like diabetes arise when sugars are consumed and insulin levels are too frequently elevated, even though the muscles have plenty of glycogen stored. Your cells get so tired of insulin showing up and knocking on the door when they’re not needed, that they begin to ignore it, known as insulin resistance. This leaves sugars in your blood stream and affects your levels of toxicity. This is why insulin is beneficial, but shouldn’t be released constantly to maintain your cell’s sensitivity to it.
In Malaysia, this problem is common. With the world’s third lowest average step-count, activity levels and calorie-burning is very low, however it’s possible for almost every meal to contain too many calories and too much sugar. White rice is so easily processed that it is treated like sugar by our bodies, and a lot of the preferred drinks are high-calorie & high-sugar. Our cells don’t need or want this constantly when they have no use for it.
We’ll explore it further in future articles, but this will always be one for you to come back to if things don’t make sense!