What is insulin and why does it matter? My interpretation and use.

Why do we exercise? Why do we eat healthy? Why is breakfast important? Why do you fast? 

Fitness and diet trends are everywhere. Some are mere fads, some have merit, some need more time to be proven out. 

One word that keeps popping up as having been the beneficiary of so many of the above questions is insulin. But I admit I don't really know that much about the hormone. Is insulin sensitivity good or not? What's resistance? What the hell does insulin do?

As someone who's never had a formal post-secondary level education in health and fitness I figured I'll rely on people I trust to teach me.

So here is what I learned: 

Insulin, what are you?

Insulin is an anabolic hormone. Anabolic hormones store nutrients into cells, mainly muscle cells. So when folks are yelling about things making you anabolic they are probably referring to a "muscle growing" state.

Where is it created?

The pancreas.

When is it created?

As soon as you get nutrients in your body. The first moment in the morning when your saliva touches anything that has calories and as those enzymes go to break down those nutrients, the pancreas will awaken to produce insulin.

Insulin production starts in the morning. It is high during the day and it declines throughout until it practically shuts off at night. Your pancreas shuts off in the night and may excrete tiny bits if you eat. 

High/Low insulin production, why does it matter?

Well, the more insulin that is produced, the more likely the nutrients will be stored for muscle cell growth rather than being set aside as fat. Caveat here is nutrients will go to muscle cells to repair and grow it because it's been damaged from exercising. If you are a sedentary person that never exercises, there probably won't be much muscle cell growth so you've got a whole different problem. 

When insulin production is low at night, the nutrients consumed then will have a higher chance of being stored as fat. Some nice belly fat.

People with type 1 diabetes are those who don't produce enough insulin, or none at all, and are at risk of dying since the nutrition is not going to the muscle cells. 

What's resistance?

Insulin resistance is the level of difficulty your body encounters to use the hormone to push nutrients into your cells. So high resistance is bad. It seems that some people are genetically born to have high insulin resistance. This tends to be the issue for people with type 2 diabetes. People with type 2 diabetes tend to have high insulin resistance and that resistance makes the pancreas produce more insulin. Hence, these individuals have chronically high levels of insulin. Insulin stores nutrients into cells. Muscle cells seem to be the priority but when your muscles cannot take anymore nutrients, everything will be efficiently and effectively stored as fat. So individuals with type 2 diabetes are likely to suffer from obesity. 

Then sensitivity is?

Sensitivity is how responsive your cells are to insulin. So improved sensitivity would lower resistance to it. 

Many things improve insulin sensitivity like black coffee, exercise, cold + heat therapy (i.e. saunas and cold showers), forms of time-restricted eating (i.e. commonly referred to as fasting). So improving sensitivity will allow nutrients to be readily absorbed into muscle cells even when secretion could have declined, like later on in the day. 

Why does insulin production decline at night?

As the sun goes down and night comes, our body produces melatonin. We get sleepy when melatonin reaches a certain level. Turns out, the melatonin receptors are in the pancreas so a theory is that melatonin production may signal the pancreas to shut down. This may be why people refer to how eating big breakfasts is better than big dinners for fat loss etc.... 

A study done by Dr. Satchin Panda tested 2 groups of mice. One group was fed a diet of large sugar + unhealthy fats in the morning. Another group at was fed the exact same diet at night (he noted 8-9pm). The group that was fed in the morning saw blood glucose levels spike up but return down within 90 minutes to levels that would be classified as "healthy". The group fed at night saw blood glucose level spike up and stay that way for a long time. This was seen as indication of high insulin production in the morning aiding with the body absorbing the nutrient for use and not storing it as fat. 

Final thoughts and my implementation.

So timing seems to be important. Improving sensitivity would help though. Given how people tend to physically perform better in late afternoons it would be ideal to train later in the afternoon and have the improved insulin sensitivity enough to have the nutrients utilized the proper way. Though a diet that is lower on carbs at night would definitely help. 

I've been doing 15 minute saunas 4x a week and 1 minute cold showers every morning for the last 3-4 months. I've also been incorporating 8-10 hour time restricted eating in the last 6 months as well. I do not have a shredded figure but I do believe the impact of my abhorrent diet on a 2 month vacation to Asia and Vancouver may have been limited thanks to this system. 

As I continue to learn more I'll make tweaks to the system. For one thing, the consumption of caffeine (i.e. black coffee) will be switched to fit within a 10 hour feeding window and food itself to be consumed in an 8 hour feeding window. I actually had this reverse before with a goal of a 14-16 hour fasting window but it seems that the length that which we eat is what the studies focus on so I will see how this works out. 

Exercise-wise, I'm back to lifting heavy 4x a week in the afternoon with light cardio 7 days a week in the morning. 

So with the system back online, I'll see how this improved insulin sensitivity combined with time-restricted fasting will aid in my strength and physical results. 


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