Insulin is the Seal Team of Our Biology: What I learned today

The book of the month for October is It Starts With Food, 2nd Edition by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig. If you have dabbled in Paleo at all then surely you have heard of it, them or their community over at Whole 9 (if not, don’t worry, but do go check them out. They are pretty amazing!). 


Hormones are one of my favorite things to learn about as they are terribly complicated and extremely overwhelming when you first read about them. But this is where the Hartwig’s step up and do the world a favor. They take this insanely complicated topic and discuss it in terms that we all understand. 


We have all heard of insulin and often what we hear is negative. When we think insulin we may think of diabetes and insulin injections. And those are certainly relevant topics. But understanding insulin further will shed light on what and why we should consume what we should. 


Without this understanding nutrition is just based on whatever the TV commercials tell us (Cheerios give you protein and commercially produced Milk is amazing! Oh and carbs are bad but whole grains are perfect. Eat Fat but only if its “the right fat” and protein from nuts will serve the same purpose as protein from meat). This will simply not do. The world has told us a lot over the years and not all of it has been accurate or correct. The information here is not difficult to learn, but again, at first glance, it certainly seems overwhelming. 


So Insulin is the word of the day. Insulin is an anabolic hormone which just means it builds and stores (as opposed to catabolic which degrades or breaks down for energy). This is a good thing and only becomes bad when the conditions are off meaning we are not being smart with what we put into our body. 


There is always sugar in our blood (blood sugar) and this is necessary. There is also an ideal amount of blood sugar and when we fall below (hypo which is addressed by glucagon, a catabolic hormone that is influenced by the presence of insulin as well) or above (hyper) our bodies will react in the hopes of returning the levels to normal. Insulin controls the fate of our blood sugar when things get a little too crowded (hyperglycemia). When blood sugar levels are high, more insulin is released by the pancreas in order to bring it back down. These elevated levels of insulin also serve to signal satiety so we will not continue to eat. Every once in a while this is just fine. It is what we were built for. If you pound a cake on your birthday and you spike your blood sugar and your insulin levels increase everything is going to be just fine.


The problem arises when we constantly elevate our blood sugar (the modern diet). And this is not caused just by cake, or only sweets for that matter. All carbohydrates are broken down into sugars. If you read Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis, you would quickly learn that a slice of bread is processed similarly to a spoon full of sugar. We are not here to debate this but it should illustrate the point. Any sort of carb is going to be broken down into a sugar. Therefore it plays a role in elevating blood sugar levels. 


Here is a quote that is written in bold on page 42 of the book, “Chronically high levels of blood sugar (hypoglycemia) are harmful, so managing blood sugar is critical for long-term health.” 


Insulin is like the Navy Seals. They are capable of serving in a number of roles and they are truly skilled and unmatched in their effectiveness. But Seals are not trained or built for long term engagement. They are meant to go in, handle business more efficiently than anyone else, get the job done and get out. If Seals were left in the fight for a prolonged period of time their effectiveness, though high/unmatched for a while, would begin to degrade. Seals are never not around as they serve in many roles, but they are not always engaged to their full capabilities. This is what keeps them in their best form. 


Insulin, when called upon, is released into the blood, returns blood sugar to normal levels, stores what needs storing where it needs storing and then returns its own levels back to normal. When we leave insulin in the fight too long with chronically high levels of blood sugar, we lose its effectiveness and we develop insulin insensitivity. We begin preferential treatment of glucose, burning it first, leaving fat to be stored (as body fat, ew!). 


Another key point here is understanding what we do with carbs. Yes, carbs are used for energy (so is fat!). Carbs, as mentioned, are broken down into sugars/glucose and then either used for energy or stored in our liver or muscle cells as complex carbohydrates known as glycogen. Liver glycogen is easily broken back down into glucose and passed into the blood to be used for energy (high intensity activity, not walking around) when needed (like a gas tank). Muscle glycogen is not as readily accessible and must be used by that muscle. So our glycogen storage capacity is our fuel tank and it certainly makes sense to keep the tank full so we are ready when it’s time to move.


“When your gas tank is full, it’s full. It can’t get any bigger, and you can’t make it any fuller. Your body’s carbohydrate fuel tank isn’t very big” (p. 42). So yes, it makes sense to consume carbohydrates and no, it is not necessary or recommended to go on a no carb diet. In fact, our brain and heart rely on carbohydrates and if you want to do awesome things like lift a heavy weight really fast then carb sources are lovely! BUT, as with all things, moderation is key. We have found a ton of success with getting carbohydrates from our vegetables (including potatoes) and fruits. We have not found a terrible need for grains or sugars (fruit, of course is sugar, but here we are talking more about sweets). This does not mean they must be avoided like the plague, but it does mean that you need not argue that you will not survive without grains. Find a vitamin or mineral in anything we leave out that we do not find in something we are consuming! I’ll wait….


So, in conclusion, insulin runs your life. If she is used properly she will take care of you. If she is not used properly, you will store body fat like a hoarder and walk around talking about your hormone imbalance. Carbs are just fine, but do not over consume them. They serve a purpose and that purpose does not require overconsumption!