Insulin is not very well understood by most people. You may know that it has something to do with diabetes and a lot of people with diabetes have to inject themselves with insulin. but for many people that is the extent of our understanding.
Insulin is neither entirely good nor bad; it is a hormone that is vital to our health. but in the wrong amounts can also be deadly. It is life-saving for those with type 1 diabetes but can speed up the progress to type 2 diabetes and obesity for those with poor diets.
Insulin is the body’s way of regulating glucose in the bloodstream. which when excess in toxic amounts. sends it to the only other two other places the body where it can be stored – the liver or the muscles. Although glucose is one of the main sources of energy for the human body (from the breakdown of all carbohydrates and sugars – think bread. potatoes. sugar etc). the human body can only store a finite amount of glucose.
Insulin is produced by the beta cells of the pancreas in response to ingested sugar. even some sugar substitutes can activate a small insulin response. The insulin flows through the blood stream and links with cells and unlocks them. allowing those cells to absorb glucose for immediate use or to make their own stores of longer lasting glycogen. It also allows cells to better absorb amino acids. the building blocks of proteins and muscle. Insulin prompts the liver to store glycogen and if there is any extra from there it gets converted into body fat (note: dietary sugar is converted to body fat in this process. not dietary fat. We’ll return to this later).
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An absence of insulin has the opposite effect; the liver breaks down glycogen into glucose and excretes it for the body to use because it does not have glucose in the diet and body fat is metabolized.
Insulin is a very old evolutionary trick which allows animals to survive periods of starvation followed by satiation and avoid the damaging effects of glucose in the blood stream As prehistoric humans. we largely ate meat and fibrous plants. which broke down slowly to release glucose over time. When we could get some berries or honey our bodies saw huge glucose spikes. Though all of this glucose was of a high quality energy. glucose has a corrosive effect when in the blood stream To avoid this damage. insulin was released by the pancreas to immediately get that glucose where it needed to be. (the muscles). and stored the rest in the liver and body fat to prepare for when the body couldn’t get anything to eat.
Prehistoric humans didn’t need insulin spikes too often. but when we did. it allowed us to use that high quality energy and also allowed us to store the excess as fat and liver stores of glycogen. So. when we found a berry patch during the stone age it was not inherently unhealthy to eat only berries for the whole day because chances were that we were not going to find such a berry bush for a while. perhaps for the whole winter – frequent periods of fasting and starvation were part of the nature of life for our ancestors. Problems start when we find that “berry patch” every day, and we never go through periods of real physiological starvation. What was designed as a quick response system to the occasional sugar rush became used several times a day.