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Friday, August 1, 2014

A Beginner’s Guide to Working Insulin to Your Advantage

Not abdominally gifted? No problem.
“Why are you recommending a drink that will make me fat?” my client asked out of nowhere. During our proceeding session, she wondered what post-workout fuel I suggested.

“I love a professional-quality whey paired with a healthy carb source,” I replied, noting the protein brand I use.

After that session, my client took the “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing” cliché to its extreme and did a PubMed search about whey. She found one study that argued whey could raise insulin as much as white bread.  

“Everyone knows insulin is your fat-storing hormone and that you always want to keep it low,”
she said, probably recalling some vastly misinformed diet book. “The last thing I want to do after a workout is store fat, so why would I use whey?”

 I took a deep breath and attempted to clarify her question.

The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: How Hormones Get Stigmatized
Some hormones unfairly get a bad rep, when in reality no hormone is inherently good or bad. Take cortisol, a stress hormone your adrenals release when you feel a real or perceived threat.

Cortisol can save your life. It certainly did your ancestors when a saber-tooth tiger wanted them for lunch, and it works equally well today when someone swerves into your lane on the Los Angeles freeways.

 Your adrenals secrete cortisol to do its job – namely, to keep you alert and out of danger – and then get the hell out. Cortisol “past its due date” is like that annoying party guest who doesn’t take the hint to leave. When cortisol stays elevated, you break down muscle, store fat, weaken your immune system, and eventually suffer adrenal fatigue.

Dr. Sara Gottfried calls cortisol a “Jekyll-and-Hyde hormone.” It can work for or against you. I would say the same thing about insulin, an anabolic hormone that helps build things. As you’ll see, that can become good or bad depending on the situation.

Insulin: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Insulin’s main job is to keep blood glucose (blood sugar) levels nice and steady. When those glucose levels rise, insulin jumps to the scene and pulls it back down. Insulin can do three things with that surplus glucose:
  1. Give it to your cells for an immediate energy hit.
  2. Store it as glycogen.
  3. Store it as fat.
Insulin’s a powerful dude. So powerful, according to my friend Dr. Jonny Bowden, that it has five hormones to counterbalance its effects.

Macronutrients signal insulin differently. Protein triggers insulin but also glucagon, a hormone that breaks down fat. Carbohydrates – especially empty-nutrient ones – are insulin’s bread and butter. (Pun fully intended.) Fat alone doesn’t trigger insulin, but a high-fat/ high-sugar combo makes insulin a very active guy.

“The more sugar – i.e., carbohydrates – you take in, the more sugar you need to store and the more your insulin will rise,” says Bowden in his book Living Low Carb. “The more your insulin levels rise, the less fat you burn and the more sugar you store in fat cells… The more you store, the fatter you get. The fatter you get, the more insulin-resistant you become.”

I realize that’s a lot to process, so let’s say you’re a sedentary guy. Walking to the mailbox qualifies as exercise, beer is your preferred “hydration,” you’ve never met a pizza you didn’t fall in love with, and your idea of a Friday night entails Game of Thrones marathons and Xbox on the couch.

In science speak, here’s what happens: That fatty, sugary meal triggers insulin, which inhibits hormone-sensitive lipase, a hormone that breaks down fat. Insulin eventually triggers another hormone called lipoprotein lipase, which makes sure fat finds a nice home around your midsection.

In other words, insulin not only blocks fat from breaking down; it keeps that fat nicely locked up in your fat cells so your body can’t burn it.

Let’s say our friend, the sedentary guy, devours a pizza with a six-pack and a pint of Chunky Monkey. That high-carbohydrate, high-fat meal will raise blood sugar pretty quickly. Insulin will hop onto the scene and deliver a little sugar (as glucose) to his cells. Insulin then delivers a little more glucose to his liver to store as glycogen.

With that massive meal, he’s still got sugar floating around, and his cells and liver don’t want any more. Since he doesn’t lift heavy, his muscle cells aren’t interested in storing glucose. The dismal result is that excess glucose becomes repackaged as triglycerides, or fats, which find a nice home around his midsection.

If he keeps eating and living that way, his cells will eventually get burned out being constantly barraged with insulin’s incessant call and become insulin resistant, paving the way for metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

Working Insulin to Your Advantage
I’m not painting a flattering picture about insulin so far, but believe it or not, you can work this workhorse hormone to your advantage. Remember earlier I said insulin is a storage hormone. It likes to build things.

Here’s the key: Insulin really doesn’t care whether it builds fat or muscle. It just wants to build, period.

Whereas insulin will convert excess sugar (glucose) to fat in a sedentary person, after you workout insulin becomes motivated to store that glucose in your muscle cells, which practically beg for it. That helps build bigger muscles, and it provides your body backup fuel when it runs low.

Let’s say you’ve lifted heavy for 45 minutes. You have a whey shake and a banana, or maybe some chicken and sweet potatoes, after your workout. Either scenario will raise blood sugar and signal insulin’s call, pushing that glucose and amino acids into your hungry muscle cells.

Sports science researcher Dr. Robert Portman calls insulin “the body’s ultimate recovery mediator.” He believes this hormone plays a significant role in muscle recovery via three roles:
  1. Insulin replenishes depleted glycogen stores.
  2. Insulin helps transport amino acids into muscle stores for rebuilding and repair.
  3. Insulin inhibits protein breakdown.
Much like you save money for a rainy day, those glycogen and amino acids that insulin deliver into muscle can provide fuel during future workouts and help maintain muscle mass.

You also improve insulin sensitivity (the opposite of insulin resistance), helping this hormone more efficiently deliver future glucose to cells and as storage fuel (glycogen).

“After a single bout of exercise, the ability of insulin to stimulate glucose uptake is markedly improved locally in the previously active muscles,” researchers wrote in one study. “This makes exercise a potent stimulus counteracting insulin resistance characterizing type 2 diabetes (T2D).” 

My two favorite kinds of exercise, strength training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or burst training, work best for harnessing insulin and gaining these advantages. One study found HIIT could improve insulin action. Another concluded strength training increases insulin-mediated glucose uptake and insulin signaling in skeletal muscle for people with type 2 diabetes. 

Maximizing Post-Workout Insulin
To work insulin to your advantage post-workout, Portman recommends “the right combination of carbs and protein post-workout to reduce muscle damage, increase muscle glycogen replenishment and stimulate the repair and rebuilding of muscle protein."

Whether or not timing matters, is a matter of some controversy though I don’t think you need to knock people over to fuel up post-workout. Eating something protein- and carbohydrate-rich within an hour (one study said even two hours) after a workout should be fine.

What you don’t want to do is keep those insulin levels cranked up all day, which can lead to inflammation (an athlete’s worst enemy) and eventually store that excess glucose as fat. Raise insulin post-workout, but otherwise keep your blood sugar nice and steady with lower-glycemic foods.

Meal timing, optimal protein/ carbohydrate post-workout ratios, and activating insulin all become controversial topics in the fitness industry. What are your strategies to optimize insulin and build muscle rather than fat? Share your thoughts here or on my Facebook fan page.

Additional References

Jonny Bowden, Living Low Carb (New York: Sterling, 2010).
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Fitness expert and strength coach Jini Cicero, CSCS, teaches intermediate exercisers how to blast through plateaus to create incredible transformations. Are you ready to take your fitness to a whole new level?  Find out now!  Take Jini's "Are you Ready?" Quiz at© 2014 Jinifit, Inc.

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