Insulin gets a bad rep. The truth is, when managed correctly, this hormone is essential for helping you build muscle. But how can you manage your insulin and get it to work in the right way?
What is insulin?
You’ve probably heard of insulin in relation to diabetes, but what exactly is it? Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas to help manage the levels of glucose in your blood. Not only that – insulin is also a protein, and the pancreas produces it whenever you eat protein or carbs. So as long as you’re able to manage your diet correctly – and the pancreas is working properly – you should be able to use insulin’s benefits to your advantage.
Why is insulin important for building muscle?
Insulin is a functional protein, which means it’s essential for building muscle. Just like other proteins, insulin is a chain of amino acids all strung together, but it acts more like a signalling mechanism for the rest of your body.
Insulin is produced in the pancreas and then enters the bloodstream. This then travels to various muscle tissues throughout the body, which are fitted with insulin receptors – think of these as being like a docking station. Once an insulin molecule docks onto an insulin receptor, it then signals to the rest of the muscle to open up and accept other molecules like glucose, creatine, and amino acids.
When insulin docks onto these receptor cells, it starts off a chain of biochemical reactions which increase protein synthesis – so all of those amino acids it encourages into the muscle tissue can be built into muscle. Insulin is also fantastic for preventing a catabolic state, which is the degradation of muscle mass. Blood vessels are encouraged to relax and dilate, which allows for greater blood flow to your muscles, and can increase the amount of nutrients like amino acids and glucose in your muscles.
What are the downsides?
While insulin has some fantastic benefits to help you build muscle, if managed incorrectly, it can also have a detrimental effect. When insulin is released from the pancreas, the pancreas then signals to the rest of the body that it has been fed. This, in turn, causes the body to stop burning stored fat, and instead focuses on the nutrients that have just been ingested.
Just as insulin is handy for working to build up muscle cells, it can also encourage fat cells to open up and accept glucose and fats, causing the body to store more fat. If more fat is stored and less fat is burned, spiking insulin levels throughout the day could have the opposite effect to the one that you’re trying to achieve. The key to getting it right? Make sure that you eat the right foods, which leads us on to…
Complex vs simple carbs
To make sure that you’re using insulin’s advantages over its disadvantages and you get that crucial muscle gain, it’s important to be mindful of the types of carbs that you’re ingesting. Carbs can be split into two categories – complex carbs, and simple carbs. This basically refers to how fast they are absorbed into the body – also known as the glycemic index.
Simple carbs – or foods with a high glycemic index – are quickly absorbed into the body, causing a spike in insulin, but these can cause an energy crash, as they pass through the digestive system quickly. Complex carbs – or foods with a low glycemic index – are digested more slowly, which means the carbs are released over a longer period of time, and are more beneficial for the body.
Generally you should aim to consume more complex carbs throughout the day, if you choose to eat carbs at all, as these won’t cause insulin to spike, and instead keeps insulin levels low. These will help you to maintain your energy levels throughout the day. If you want to eat some carbs before a workout, try between 20-40g of low glycemic index carbs around 30 minutes before your workout, along with 20g protein powder.
What complex carbs should you look out for?
While you want to avoid simple carbs and simple sugars such as junk food, you’ll want to be getting plenty of these types of complex carbs to help you make the most of your insulin.
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Sourdough bread
- Most fruit (bananas, apples, peaches, oranges)
- Most fruit juice
- Whole-wheat pasta
- Rye bread
- Beans (pinto, black, kidney)
- Wheat germ
- Whole-wheat and whole-grain bread
- Most waxy maizes
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Lead image: Ivanko_Brnjakovic via Getty Images.