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What the Heck Is Insulin and How Does It Affect Blood Sugar and Fat Loss?

November is American Diabetes Month, so we decided to take a closer look at insulin: What does it do, how does it lead to diabetes, and what are the surprising ways it can help us lose fat?
What the Heck Is Insulin and How Does It Affect Blood Sugar and Fat Loss?
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With so much written about diet versus exercise and exercise versus diet, it’s easy to overlook the role hormones play in our health and wellbeing, but they can make all the difference. In honor of American Diabetes Month, we’ve decided to take a closer look at the hormone insulin: What is it, and how does it relate to diabetes? Can we manipulate insulin to help us lose fat and live longer? As it turns out, we can — and pretty easily, too.

What Is Insulin and How Does It Relate to Diabetes?

Insulin is a super important hormone that helps us absorb nutrients from our food. Whenever we eat carbs (and a little bit when we eat protein), the amount of sugar in our blood increases, and the pancreas releases insulin to help take the sugar out of the bloodstream and into our organs (mostly the liver and muscle cells) where it can be used for energy [1].

Diabetes is a disease that occurs when that insulin response doesn’t work properly and sugar piles up in the blood with nowhere to go. This can result in a whole lot of problems, including vision loss, hearing loss, high blood pressure, and gum disease.

There are two main kinds of diabetes: Type 1 occurs when the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Type 2 occurs when insulin is produced, but the body doesn’t respond to it the right way. What causes Type 1 is often hard to pinpoint. Type 2 diabetes is increasingly common — some have estimated that a third of Americans born in 2000 will develop the disease — and a lot of the time, it can be prevented. How? Let’s talk insulin sensitivity.

What is Insulin Sensitivity?

Doing a lot of something can make you less sensitive to its effects, right? Drinking coffee all the time can dull the caffeine, regular drinkers find they need more beers to get drunk than they used to, and so on.

In kind of the same way, eating carbs too often (especially simple ones, like sugars), can make us less sensitive to insulin (or more “insulin resistant”). When that happens, we need to produce more insulin than we should need to in order to keep blood sugar stable.

That’s bad. If insulin sensitivity becomes poor, we have trouble digesting carbs and absorbing nutrients, and we gain weight. If it’s really bad for a long time, the pancreas needs to make more and more insulin because we’re so insensitive to it. Eventually, it gets exhausted and stops being able to release the hormone properly — and that’s when Type 2 diabetes occurs. 

But insulin resistance doesn’t just increase the risk of diabetes. It ups the risk of thyroid problems and several kinds of cancer, and it also makes it a lot harder to control body fat [2] [3] [4]. So if we want to burn fat, we want to be sensitive — even the big, tough guys! Fortunately, we know plenty of ways to make your insulin work for you.

8 Ways to Improve Insulin Sensitivity

If insulin sensitivity is of concern, it’s not hard to get it tested — just ask a doctor for a fasting plasma glucose test. Maximizing insulin sensitivity should be a priority for anyone interested in improving their health, minimizing their diabetes risk, and even rocking sweet abs. Here are eight tips to help that happen.

  1. Exercise regularly
    Exercising 3 or 4 times a week can improve nearly every health marker there is, and insulin sensitivity is no exception [5] [6]. To maximize the insulin-related benefits, make the workouts extra intense with high intensity interval training or depletion workouts[7] [8].
  2. Get plenty of sleep
    Lying down’s never been so healthy! Getting adequate sleep is crucial to keep the body functioning smoothly, and that includes hormone production [9].
  3. Eat fewer carbohydrates, especially simple carbs
    Eating lots of carbs makes us produce a lot of insulin, so it’s best to follow a diet that’s low in simple and processed carbs, especially sugar, to maximize our sensitivity to the stuff [10].  An exception is after you exercise — a blood sugar spike is a good thing post-workout, because the insulin helps to quickly send nutrients to exhausted muscles.
  4. Eat slow-digesting foods
    When foods digest slowly, the sugars take longer to hit the bloodstream, and insulin is released more gradually. Fats, fiber, and protein are all great examples, and should make up a significant portion of our diets [11] [12].
  5. Fast regularly
    Intermittent fasting can be a useful method to lower the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a wide range of other illnesses [13] [14].
  6. Eat cinnamon
    Cinnamon is a delicious way to control blood glucose [15]. Put that ish on everything, from yogurt to coffee.
  7. Drink green tea
    Drinking plenty of green tea has been shown to significantly reduce blood sugar concentrations, but ditch the milk — it can undermine tea’s circulatory benefits [16] [17] [18].
  8. Keep body fat low
    However it’s achieved, simply being lean can improve insulin sensitivity [19]. There’s never been a better reason to train for fat loss!

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Works Cited +

  1. Protein: metabolism and effect on blood glucose levels. Franz MJ. Diabetes Educ. 1997 Nov-Dec;23(6):643-6, 648, 650-1.
  2. Insulin, glucose, insulin resistance, and pancreatic cancer in male smokers. Stolzenberg-Solomon RZ, Graubard BI, et al. National Cancer Institute, Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD, USA. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2005 Dec 14;294(22):2872-8.
  3. The correlation between metabolic syndrome and prostatic diseases. De Nunzio C, Aronson W, et al. Department of Urology, Sant'Andrea Hospital, University La Sapienza, Rome, Italy. European Urology, 2012 Mar;61(3):560-70.
  4. Insulin resistance and breast-cancer risk. Bruning PF, Bonfrèr JM, et al. The Netherlands Cancer Institute, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Bruning PF, Bonfrèr JM, et al. The Netherlands Cancer Institute, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. International Journal of Cancer, 1992 Oct 21;52(4):511-6.
  5. Exercise training favors increased insulin-stimulated glucose uptake in skeletal muscle in contrast to adipose tissue: a randomized study using FDG PET imaging. Reichkendler MH, Auerbach P, et al. The American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism,  2013 Aug 15;305(4):E496-506.
  6. Exercise and insulin sensitivity: a review. Borghouts LB, Keizer HA. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 2000 Jan;21(1):1-12.
  7. Effect of sprint interval training and resistance exercise on metabolic markers in overweight women. Alvarez C, Ramírez R, et al. Revista Médica de Chile, 2012 Oct;140(10):1289-96.
  8. Effects of intense exercise and moderate caloric restriction on cardiovascular risk factors and inflammation. Ahmadi N, Eshaghian S, et al. American Journal of Medicine, 2011 Oct;124(10):978-82.
  9. Inadequate sleep as a contributor to obesity and type 2 diabetes. McNeil J, Doucet E, et al. Canadian Journal of Diabetes, 2013 Apr;37(2):103-8.
  10. Dietary carbohydrate restriction improves insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, microvascular function, and cellular adhesion markers in individuals taking statins. Ballard KD, Quann EE, et al. Nutrition Research, 2013 Nov;33(11):905-12.
  11. Dietary glycemic index and glycemic load, carbohydrate and fiber intake, and measures of insulin sensitivity, secretion, and adiposity in the Insulin Resistance Atherosclerosis Study. Liese AD, Schulz M, et al. Diabetes Care. 2005 Dec;28(12):2832-8.
  12. Substituting dietary saturated for monounsaturated fat impairs insulin sensitivity in healthy men and women: The KANWU Study. Vessby B, Uusitupa M, et al. Diabetologia. 2001 Mar;44(3):312-9.
  13. Effect of intermittent fasting and refeeding on insulin action in healthy men. Halberg N, Henriksen M, et al. Dept. of Muscle Research Centre, The Panum Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2005 Dec;99(6):2128-36.
  14. Usefulness of routine periodic fasting to lower risk of coronary artery disease in patients undergoing coronary angiography. Horne BD, May HT, et al. Cardiovascular Department, Intermountain Medical Center, Murray, Utah, USA. American Journal of Cardiology, 2008 Oct 1;102(7):814-819.
  15. Effect of ground cinnamon on postprandial blood glucose concentration in normal-weight and obese adults. Magistrelli A, Chezem JC. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2012 Nov;112(11):1806-9.
  16. Anti-obesity actions of green tea: Possible involvements in modulation of the glucose uptake system and suppression of the adipogenesis-related transcription factors. Ashida H, Furuyashiki T, et al. Biofactors 2004; 22(1-4):135-40.
  17. Effect of green tea on glucose control and insulin sensitivity: a meta-analysis of 17 randomized controlled trials. Liu K, Zhou R, et al. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2013 Aug;98(2):340-8.
  18. Addition of milk prevents vascular protective effects of tea. Lorenz M, Jochmann N, et al. European Heart Journal, 2007 Jan;28(2):219-23.
  19. Effects of age and body fat on insulin resistance in healthy men. Boden G, Chen X, et al. Diabetes Care. 1993 May;16(5):728-33.

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