Insulin: Our most Important Anabolic Hormone Uncovered
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.
An Introduction to Insulin
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.
Use it or Lose it
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.
Insulin for Muscle Energy & Focus
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.
Perhaps the most important controlling mechanism we may use for optimal muscular performance is our brain; indeed, without a fast-responding central nervous system and the alertness of mind needed to fully apply ourselves to hoisting back-bending weights we would experience little, if any, muscle-building progress.
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.
Upon its release in response to carbohydrate or protein consumption, insulin travels to its target receptor sites where it facilitates nutrient uptake into the cells, in the process, lowering blood glucose and detoxifying the bloodstream of excess glucose.
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.
Insulin Management to Reduce Body Fat
Aside from its muscle-building benefits, sufficient insulin production and cellular receptivity to its influence is immensely important for those seeking to strip body fat to miniscule levels; but instead of seeking to elevate low levels of insulin, as has been discussed in relation to those who cannot manufacture enough of it, we must do the reverse by controlling its production. Whenever blood glucose is reduced to a certain level, our body, through a process called glycogenolysis, begins to use stored glycogen for energy. This is important for keeping body fat levels in check. However, should blood glucose remain elevated in proportion to its requirements (primarily through excessive carbohydrate consumption and the concomitant overproduction of insulin), it may ultimately encourage greater fat storage.
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.
Maximize Insulin Production for Bodybuilding Success
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:
- Complete 3-4 intense hour-long weight training sessions per week;
- Consume a diet comprised of 40-50% complex carbohydrates (too few carbohydrates may actually decrease insulin sensitivity), 30-40% high quality proteins and 20% fats from essential sources such as cold water fish, olive oil, flax oil and nut oil;
- Supplement daily with around 600mg of alpha-lipoic acid and concentrated fish oils which contain 6-10g of the omega 3’s DHA and EPA.
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).
Scheduling Your Spikes
Weight training can be both catabolic and anabolic but if properly managed, with regard to insulin, output will produce nothing but positive effects. Here’s how to do it:
- One hour prior to training consume around 30g of high quality whey protein along with one serving of waxy maize; Allmax Nutrition’s Isoflex and Waxy Maize 2300 are, respectively, the perfect products to use in this instance. The waxy maize will create a large insulin spike, thus enabling the whey to be stored in the muscles to prevent muscle catabolism during training.
- Directly after training (before the sweat has dried), consider consuming a supplement such as KRUSH LOADED. Packed with a 5-phase carbohydrate blend (waxy maize, dextrose, fructose, palatinose and maltodextrin) as well as an optimal dosage of creatine at 5mg, this blend will replenish glycogen stores and immediately shuttle that creatine directly into your muscle. It is well known that immediately post-training, the muscles are extra-receptive to nutrient uptake. Spiking insulin at this time only serves to enhance this process.
- To further capitalize on this post-workout refueling period, consider consuming a concentrated why protein isolate 20 – 30 minutes after training.
While spiking insulin early in the day and, in particular, before and after training, will, as noted, promote the desired insulin surge when it is needed most there are two periods when we must avoid this process at all costs: the final two meals of the day. As our metabolic rate begins to slow and our need for maximal glycogen storage is reduced (during the evening hours) any insulin spike at this time will almost certainly lead to fat gain. Beware.
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.
Cut the carbs, but not excessively
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.
- Eriksson, J. et al. 1997. Resistance Training in the Treatment of Non-Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus. International of Sports Medicine 18:242-6.
- Ishii, T. et al. 1998. Resistance Training Improves Insulin Sensitivity in NIDDM Subjects Without Altering Maximal Oxygen Uptake. Diabetes Care 21:1353-5.
- Meijssen S, Cabezas MC, Ballieux CG, et al. Insulin mediated inhibition of hormone sensitive lipase activity in vivo in relation to endogenous catecholamines in healthy subjects. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2001; 86: 4193-7.
- Robertson MD, Henderson RA, Vist GE, Rumsey RDE. Extended effects of evening meal carbohydrate-to-fat ratio on fasting and postprandial substrate metabolism. Am J Clin Nutr 2002; 75: 505-510.
- Thresher, J., Podolin, D.,A. Wei, Y., Mazzeo., R.S. & Pagliassotti, M., J. comparison of the effects of sucrose and glucose on insulin action and glucose tolerance. AJP – Regu Physiol Oct 2000 Vol.279 no. 4