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Arguably, our most important hormone from a health standpoint is insulin. Without it, we would quickly enter a state of starvation, fall ill, and require synthetic versions of this amino-acid-based-peptide-protein to stay alive.
For most of us, insulin is most readily associated with diabetes mellitus, a disorder characterized by either a complete absence of insulin (Type 1), or poor production of and/or cellular resistance to insulin (Type 2, or adult onset diabetes). In other words, most people do not often pay insulin a second thought until they, or someone they know, experiences diminishing levels of it – then they’re made acutely aware of its importance.
Regardless of whether we consume 300 or 3000 daily calories, without sufficient levels of insulin the nutrients we take in may not be used to their fullest advantage, if at all (depending on how much insulin we produce and how well our cells respond to insulin’s effects). Upon absorption, the foods we eat are broken down into their constituent molecules (glycogen from carbohydrates, amino acids from protein and triglycerides from fats) and used to fuel our daily activities, repair and rebuild tissues and run our cellular machinery. However, in the absence of insulin these processes are severely curtailed. Simply put, without sufficient insulin output our cells do not receive the raw materials they need to function as they should. Further, without insulin’s ability to transport and store nutrients, blood glucose levels rapidly rise to where extreme weakness, abdominal pain, nausea/vomiting, irritability and other negative mood changes and immune system dysfunction may occur. When enough of these symptoms accumulate we are diagnosed as diabetic and may require the regular administration of artificial, synthetically-derived insulin to stay healthy and function normally.
For bodybuilders and athletes generally, however, insulin’s role in carbohydrate, fat and protein regulation becomes of increasing concern, not only for its general health benefits, but for its ability to promote, or negate, lean muscular development and physical performance. Secreted from the islet cells of the pancreas, insulin’s main function is to store blood glucose (as glycogen) in cells to which insulin receptors are attached (most notably liver –10% of its mass is stored glycogen – and muscle cells – 1% of mass), thus ensuring we have a steady-state supply of energy from which to draw upon. It is worth noting that because our muscles comprise a much larger surface area compared to our liver, the total glycogen storage capacity for our muscular system is double that of the liver.
GIVEN A BODYBUILDERS DEPENDENCE ON FULL MUSCLE GLYCOGEN STORES FROM WHICH TO LIBERATE ENERGY TO PROMOTE BOTH ANAEROBIC MUSCLE ENDURANCE AND THE COVETED PUMPING EFFECT, INSULIN IS, ON A MOST BASIC LEVEL, CRITICAL TO MUSCLE-BUILDING SUCCESS.
In fact, unlike the glycogen stored in liver cells, which is constantly converted via the hormone glucagon back into blood glucose to provide energy to power various organs (including the brain, where small amounts of glycogen are stored in the glial cells), the glycogen contained in muscles is used specifically for muscular contraction. Thus, insulin’s ability to fill our muscles with the requisite 1% of glycogen is paramount to how well they perform, especially under conditions of intensive effort.
IT IS INTERESTING TO NOTE THAT THE MAJOR SITE OF DAILY GLUCOSE CONSUMPTION, A WHOPPING 75%, IS THE BRAIN, WHERE IT IS EITHER TRANSPORTED IN SOLUBLE FORM IN THE BLOOD OR, ESPECIALLY BETWEEN MEALS, VIA THE CONVERSION OF LIVER GLYCOGEN.
Insulin’s failure to deliver adequate glucose to the brain explains the drowsiness often experienced by pre-medicated diabetics. It is clear that without the proper functioning of insulin, bodybuilders would not only lack the muscular energy needed to complete their workouts, they may not even get out of the starting blocks due to significant mental fatigue.
DURING THIS TRANSFERENCE, VALUABLE AMINO ACIDS ARE GOBBLED UP BY HUNGRY MUSCLE CELLS AND USED TO ENGAGE PROTEIN SYNTHESIS – THE LAYING DOWN OF NEW MUSCLE FIBERS.
Here insulin is as crucial for muscle building as it is for energy production. Moreover, as we known, a fuller, rounder muscle is a more impressive muscle; what is perhaps not as widely known is the role insulin plays in super-saturating our muscles with amino acids and glycogen, thus enhancing their volume and improving their performance. Also, insulin prevents amino acids (taken directly from food or those stored in muscle) from being oxidized as a reserve fuel source; this enables us to stay anabolic, for longer.
SINCE THE MUSCLES AND LIVER CAN ONLY RETAIN SO MUCH GLYCOGEN AT ANY GIVEN TIME, EXCESSIVE BLOOD GLUCOSE WILL DRIVE UP INSULIN PRODUCTION AND INEVITABLY BE STORED AS FAT.
It is all but impossible for the body to burn stored body fat when insulin levels are too high. Indeed, as well as depriving the body of the nutrition it needs to properly function through an insufficient product of it or our cells’ inability to utilize it (so called insulin-resistance), insulin, improperly managed, can also promote excessive nutrient storage of the wrong kind. This is why a fundamental tenant of any good diet plan invokes eating the right kinds of carbohydrates in the right quantities.
Before strategic supplementation and nutritional implementation can have any significant bearing on insulin’s ability to enhance training quality and protein synthesis, insulin must first be in a position to exert its powerful anabolic effects through greater cellular insulin sensitivity. The three main ways to improve insulin sensitivity are:
Once optimal insulin sensitivity is established we can begin strategically spiking insulin levels throughout the day to maximize cell volumization, glycogen storage and protein synthesis (with greater insulin sensitivity we are better able to navigate the frequent insulin surges that would promote fat storage in others). A good rule is to consume higher carbohydrate meals comprising around 60-70% complex carbs (though for all meals protein should not be neglected) over the first half of the day so as to take advantage of your greater insulin sensitivity and fill your muscles with enough glycogen with which to train (an excess can also be burned through subsequent daily activities) and to eat lower carbohydrate meals during the second half of the day (comprising around 60-70% protein with the remainder complex carbs).
Now you know the importance of our most anabolic hormone, insulin, it is worth following the steps outlined in this article to ensure your supply is both sufficient and able to exert its powerful muscle-building and health-promoting effects. For those who have been diagnosed as diabetic there are many ways to safely manage your condition, both pharmaceutical and lifestyle-related. Below are two further take home points to help you maintain optimal insulin output, sensitivity and anabolism.
As noted in this article, reducing carbohydrate consumption below what is needed for proper energy production will not stabilize insulin levels. In fact, to promote, within normal ranges, a healthy output of this protein hormone we must consume a wide variety of predominantly complex and fibrous carbohydrates. Simple, high sugar forms can be incorporated in and around intense training sessions. So, to avoid fat storage, keep your insulin flowing, with periodic spikes, just enough to maintain full muscle and liver glycogen storage and blood glucose levels sufficient to provide our bodies with an ongoing supply. Any excess, acquired through the diet, and not readily usable for bodybuilding purposes, may prepare you well for Mr. Dunkin Donuts 2012, but will do little to carve those abdominals you so desire.
Since you are reading this article it could be assumed that regular weight training will feature prominently throughout your life. For proper blood glucose management, this could be a most important step as studies have shown resistance exercise to have insulin-like effects on blood glucose levels. As well, muscle development resulting from strength training appears to promote greater insulin sensitivity. Pumping iron to promote insulin production is one of the smartest moves you, as a health conscious person, can make.
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