Editor’s Note: This post was updated on September 18, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on August 16, 2017
Eat healthier. Drink lots of water. Exercise more. You’ve probably heard these fundamental tips over and over again whenever you see an article on improving your health. But what if these tips don’t seem to be working that effectively, what else can you do?
There are actually other factors that control and govern the many physiological processes that occur in our body and can change how our bodies respond to different lifestyle changes: hormones.
Hormones are chemical messengers that signal our bodies to initiate or cease certain functions within the body. These critical messengers are produced by our endocrine glands, and they travel throughout the body and impact all of our tissues and organ systems. They affect our heart rate, sexual health, and even fat storage.
That is why it’s important to learn how hormones impact can impact your health goals.
While hormones like adrenaline, testosterone, and estrogen are discussed often in our daily conversations, one hormone that is often overlooked when thinking about our health and wellness is insulin.
Let’s take a deeper look into how this hormone works and how you can manage it to improve your body composition.
What is Insulin and Why You Need to Understand Its Role
Most people associate insulin as a medicine you have to take after a doctor diagnoses you with diabetes, but really it’s something that everybody should think more about.
Insulin is the hormone devoted to helping our body absorb the fuels we consume from our food. It enables us to take the fuel from the foods we eat (much of which is broken down into glucose in our bloodstream) and transports that glucose/blood sugar to our cells to be utilized for energy.
Think of insulin as the transporter hormone that helps get the energy from the foods we eat to their destination.
So where does this hormone come from? Our pancreas secretes insulin each time we ingest food in an effort to offset the spike in blood sugar.
Because of the critical function that insulin performs, it is clear that our body’s needs to not only producing enough insulin, but use it properly. This response is known as insulin sensitivity.
But what is so important about our body being sensitive to insulin?
Insulin Sensitivity is critical to our body’s ability to use glucose for energy to perform bodily functions and to store glucose as glycogen in our muscles and liver for future use. So you can see it is important to have an understanding of factors that can affect our sensitivity to insulin. Our body composition absolutely plays a role in how sensitive we are to insulin, specifically in regard to our muscle mass.
Think of it like this: muscle tissue is “expensive” in terms of energy need and requires more blood sugar to sustain it. Hence muscle is a major consumer of our available blood glucose. The more muscle tissue we have, the more blood glucose can be utilized for energy or transferred and stored in our muscles as glycogen for later use. When we have a lower percentage of muscle tissue, our body has a limited ability to remove the excess blood sugar to be used as energy.
What happens when our body has issues with insulin?
It is easy to see the concepts surrounding the factors affecting our sensitivity to insulin, but it is also important to understand the negative effects of suboptimal insulin functionality.
While muscle tissue is important for fostering insulin sensitivity, having excessive body fat and being obese can increase the risk being diagnosed with diseases such as diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
Conceptually, think of obesity and carrying too much body fat as elements that increase insulin resistance and prevent glucose from being shuttled into your muscles and organs. Fortunately, type two diabetes and metabolic syndrome can prevented with a healthy diet and exercise.
Take Control of Insulin Function With Your Food Choices
Now that you understand the importance of insulin to our health and wellness, the next step is to understand how nutrition can impact your insulin function.
Not surprisingly, the foods we eat have an impact on our insulin levels and sensitivity. This is due to the glycemic index of certain types of foods, which is essentially a measure of a food’s impact on post-meal blood sugar levels. While two foods can have an equal amount of macronutrients, they can have a wide range of impact on your blood glucose levels when you eat them.
Insulin Response: Not all carbs are created equal
While there has been much attention given to carbohydrate intake and low-carb diets in recent years, there is a fundamental concept to consider with carbs.
The glycemic index and load of your carbohydrates matters!
Understanding the glycemic index and load of foods is especially useful for all types of carbohydrates, as the type of carbohydrates you eat can have a wide range of impact on blood glucose and insulin response over time.
Carbs with a higher glycemic index will be broken down into blood glucose more quickly, and foods higher in glycemic load tells you more about the amount of carbohydrate in the food. Think of the glycemic index as a way of telling how quickly your body can break down the carbs into fuel, while the glycemic load will tell you how much carbohydrate you are getting from that food.
In general, foods high in both glycemic index and load are to be consumed on a limited basis if you are looking to help maximize your insulin response. These are foods and drinks such as sugary sodas, candy, doughnuts, and baked goods such as plain bagels. You want to control how much of these items you eat.
Carbohydrates high in fiber, such as certain types of oats, lentils, black beans, and raspberries can help you maximize your body’s insulin response to eating by minimizing large spikes in blood glucose post-eating. These items can be part of a balanced diet. Over time, minimizing large spikes is important when trying to maximize your body’s sensitivity.
How Healthy Fat Intake Prevents Resistance
While we have explored the concept of carrying excessive body fat as being detrimental to our insulin sensitivity, how do the types of fat we ingest impact our insulin sensitivity?
And isn’t fat bad for us?
Unfortunately, fats have been given a bad reputation, and in a somewhat misguided way. Healthy fats such as Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats have been shown to help fight against insulin resistance. In more recent years, more studies have shown the importance of managing the ratio of the types of Omega-polyunsaturated fats we consume to help maximize these health benefits.
While much of the diets in our modern society have an Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio of over 15 grams to 1 gram, keeping this ratio closer to 4g to 1g or 2g to 1g has many great, positive impacts on our health. Practically, this means replacing your vegetable oil with olive oil and cutting back on deep-fried fast foods.
So do we need fats as part of a balanced diet? Absolutely!
In addition to their role in improving insulin sensitivity, healthy fats are critical in helping maintain our cells, and are also critical in the formation of our hormones. Sources of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats include wild salmon, flaxseed, walnuts, and eggs.
Though all fat has been painted in a poor light in recent years, it is clear that healthy fats are critical for maximizing health!
Protein and amino acids: building blocks for lean tissue
As highlighted earlier, muscle mass is an important factor contributing to insulin sensitivity.
So does that mean it is all about simply packing on muscle?
Not necessarily, because it’s important to understand the impact of the relative amount of lean tissues as compared to total body mass. Those with a higher ratio of lean muscle mass as compared to fat mass are shown to have better sensitivity to insulin.
There is ample evidence surrounding the impact of protein and their amino acid building blocks on helping us build lean muscle tissue. The takeaway? Use protein to help build lean muscle to support insulin sensitivity!
Sources of dietary protein include lean beef cuts, fish, eggs, poultry, game meats such as buffalo, as well as plant sources such as lentils, peas, and nuts, in addition to dairy sources such as cottage cheese.
Working Out Your Way to Hormone Health
Can exercise play a role in improving our sensitivity to insulin? The answer is a resounding yes, and the good news is that most any type of exercise and physical activity can help.
Hitting the weights, heavy or light!
Improving muscle quality via strength training has been shown to help improve insulin sensitivity for various populations. Utilizing resistance training with free weights and machines helps reduce resting blood glucose levels.
Does it matter if your insulin sensitivity and muscle quality is poor before you start lifting weights? Or can anyone enjoy the health benefits from resistance training?
Regardless of your current insulin function, resistance training is shown to help improve insulin sensitivity and blood glucose levels. This means that even for diabetics, or those who are struggling with blood glucose levels and insulin resistance, exercise is going to help improve glycemic control when paired with a proper diet recommended by a medical professional!
Lifting lighter weights? Or looking to really gain more muscle? It turns out that regardless of if you are lifting lighter weights or are performing more intensive workouts, resistance training will help you improve insulin sensitivity and blood glucose levels. Gains for all!
Perhaps the most important key to remember is that with resistance training, you are capable of building more lean muscle tissue to store and utilize the fuels insulin works with.
Walking your way to hormone health
Utilizing aerobic exercise methods can help your body make better use of blood glucose. While resistance training will help insulin response, usage and storage of glucose by facilitating additional storage, aerobic training can help with better managing blood glucose levels.
Rest assured, you don’t need to transform into a marathon runner to get insulin-based benefits from cardiovascular training!
Benefits from aerobic activity can be achieved by something as simple as walking a minimum of 20 minutes on at least 3 days of the week. And while it is clear that both resistance training and aerobic exercise have benefits themselves, it is most beneficial to include both of them as part of your physical fitness plan to help maximize insulin sensitivity.
How the Other 23 Hours of Your Day Outside the Gym Matter
In addition to nutrition and exercise, there are elements of our daily life that impact our insulin sensitivity. One source might be the easiest path to helping maximize our insulin sensitivity: sleep!
Sleeping your way to insulin sensitivity success
Did you know your sleep quality and quantity plays an important role in insulin sensitivity? Sleep can directly impact our insulin sensitivity when we suffer sleep restriction even over a short time period. In fact, sleep restriction over a period as short as 1-week can significantly reduce our insulin sensitivity!
Getting quality sleep is also a critical element in helping manage the stress hormone cortisol, which competes with insulin in your body. While insulin focuses on helping take glucose out of your blood to be used for energy, cortisol works to keep blood sugar high.
Practicing stress management techniques is an additional tool to utilize in helping maximize insulin sensitivity, as it works to help suppress the release of the “anti-insulin health” hormone, cortisol.
The Key Points for Helping Maximize Insulin Sensitivity
Understand that maximizing insulin sensitivity is a key to helping manage weight, body composition, and health.
- Your risk for developing diabetes can be lowered through proper nutrition and exercise
- The foods we eat and when we eat them have an impact on our insulin sensitivity, so know the scope of your choices when planning your meals. Minimally processed meals high in vegetables and high in fiber prevent significant effects on blood glucose levels.
- Muscle mass and body fat play a key role in insulin sensitivity. That is why exercise and physical activity are critical elements in helping maximize insulin sensitivity, and combining resistance training with aerobic exercise is key to unlocking their full benefits.
- Take care of yourself outside of the gym and work! This means relaxing and finding ways to lower the stress of a long workweek.
- Maximizing your sleep quality and quantity and working to minimize your stress can help maximize your insulin sensitivity as well.
Be as consistent in your efforts as possible, as consistency in your nutritional intake, sleep, and physical activity will all positively impact insulin sensitivity. And most importantly, maximizing your insulin sensitivity will give you a great advantage in achieving your body composition goals!
Matt Hauck, MS, CSCS is a fitness and performance specialist, working with high school, collegiate, professional, and Olympic athletes, in addition to fitness and wellness enthusiasts.