Meet insulin, your body’s most food-dependent hormone

Welcome to the first in a new series of health and fitness articles by Joompa, an iOS platform that facilitates the sourcing and booking of sports coaches, instructors and personal trainers.

The aim of this article is to introduce you to insulin, a hormone released by your pancreas to transport digested carbohydrates to your cells.

There are many hormones that are controlled by the foods you consume, but insulin is the most relevant when looking at weight management because it controls how sugars are used by your body and fat is stored.

A strong understanding of its function makes you able to dispel myths of it being something bad, and empowers you to ensure it’s something you can manage appropriately.

When you eat carbohydrates, they are digested by your stomach into glucose, a form of sugar that can be used for energy by your cells, and released into your bloodstream.

Your body either needs this glucose to be received by your cells for energy or, in the event you’ve consumed more than can be immediately used, stored for later.

Whilst glucose is important for cell energy, it can’t be left to linger in your bloodstream at high levels as this passes through vital organs in your body to which sugars are toxic.

So, to ensure your blood sugar is kept low, your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin.

How insulin works

It has a simple job: ensure the body burns glucose for fuel and distribute this glucose to cells for energy. Think of it as flicking a switch that says, “store fat, we need to burn carbs”.

If you’ve been exercising and your muscles are low on fuel, then this is really simple – it knows that energy is either required immediately to power or repair your muscles, or “fuel levels are low” so your muscle cells create a string of glucose cells called glycogen that can be stored for usage in the future.

Insulin heads to your muscle cells and acts like a key to unlock the cells and open them to let the glucose in for use by the cell.

When you exercise you make your muscle cells much more willing to receive this “knock on the door” from insulin and open up for glucose.

This process is extremely important for muscle growth and repair, because when insulin opens the door for glucose it also lets in many other important nutrients to be efficiently absorbed and utilised.

The process puts your body in an anabolic or “growth” mode, for muscle development.

If you’ve consumed a bit too much food for usage or storage in muscle cells, insulin takes them to the liver for glycogen storage there instead.

It’s in the perfect form to be transported to your muscles for energy when needed. Note though, that the liver can only store about 300 calories, equivalent to two hours’ worth of energy.

However, if you consume far more than required, it is sent to fat cells and converted into fatty acids for storage.

In order for this energy to be accessed and fat cells to be used for energy you need to have completely depleted your muscle and liver glycogen and be in “fat burning” mode i.e. insulin is not released due to sugar consumption, and this generally means a significant calorie deficit.

Issues like diabetes arise when sugars are consumed constantly and insulin levels are so regularly elevated that your cells get so tired of insulin showing up and knocking on the door that they begin to ignore it. This is known as insulin resistance.

This leaves sugars coursing through your bloodstream and affects your levels of toxicity. This is why insulin is beneficial, but shouldn’t be released constantly to maintain your cell’s sensitivity to it.

Joompa is a digital platform that facilitates the sourcing and booking of freelance, mobile personal fitness coaches. Available on iOS or via www.joompa.com.my