Understanding Insulin v1.
Living a good life is not only about conquering and understanding the mind; it is also about understanding the body. This is important because there are significant feedback loops between the mind and body, and it is difficult to think well if your body is in disarray.
One of the key things to understand about the body is the role of Insulin. I had heard about insulin in passing when seeing documentaries about Diabetes, and I knew that it was something that was given to Diabetics to help them cope with the disease. I didn’t really understand the role of Insulin in the body until I made a conscious effort to understand what it is, how it works, and why it is so important to control insulin.
So, let’s kick things off.
Insulin is a hormone that is produced by the pancreas. It helps to regulate the level of sugar in the blood. When you eat food, your body breaks down the carbohydrates into glucose, which enters the bloodstream. Insulin helps move the glucose from the blood into the cells, which are used for energy.
If you have too much insulin, it can lead to low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia). This can make you feel tired, weak, or dizzy.
If you have too little insulin, it can lead to high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia). This can make you feel thirsty, hungry, or have trouble breathing.
And this is why it is important because the amount of insulin you produce is directly linked to how much body fat you store. The more insulin a person has, the fatter they are likely to become, as more and more glucose is stored in the liver, muscles, and then ultimately in fat.
It is important to note that when one does not eat, energy comes first from the glycogen stored in the liver and muscles, and then primarily from the fat stored around the body. If you never deplete glycogen stores in your liver and muscles, you are unlikely to be burning significant amounts of fat. This is why exercise is important, as it helps to deplete glycogen stores, and forces the body to burn more fat for energy. The best way to control insulin is through diet. Eating foods that do not spike blood sugar levels will help to keep insulin levels down. Foods that are high in fiber, protein, and healthy fats are the best options.
Now that we understand a bit more about insulin, let’s talk about how to control it.
So let’s introduce the two-compartment model of energy storage in the body, and why this has some troubling consequences for the rather simplistic view that calories in and calories out are all that matter.
The typical model is that energy in the body is one giant vat or reservoir that can be easily tapped in. So, if you burn more energy than you bring in, you will by default lose weight as the fat stores are used. If you eat more energy than you burn, then you will gain weight as the energy is stored in the form of fat.
The problem is that this is not actually how the body works.
There are two main compartments of energy storage.
There are easy-to-use energy reservoirs, and difficult-to-use energy reservoirs.
- Glycogen — The easy-to-use reservoirs include the glucose in your blood, and the glycogen in your liver and muscles. This can be tapped into instantly by the body.
- Triglycerides — The more difficult-to-use reservoir is the fat that is stored in various places across the body and are used for long-term energy storage.
The body does not freely move energy between these compartments. It is very difficult to convert triglycerides into glycogen, and vice versa. This means that if you want to lose weight, you need to deplete your glycogen stores first, and then the body will start to burn triglycerides for energy.
The problem with this is that it takes a lot of energy to convert triglycerides into glycogen. The body will only do this if it absolutely needs to, as it is inefficient. So, if you are constantly eating more energy than you are burning, the body will never need to tap into its triglyceride stores, and you will never lose weight.
We have limited amounts of storage space available for the easy-to-use category. Typically, you can deplete these by not eating for around 16-24 hours, or by doing a long-distance strenuous exercise. When we talk about marathon runners “hitting the wall”, this is what we mean. They have depleted their glycogen stores and true fatigue starts to set in.
For the second category, we can store virtually unlimited amounts. If you have 20kg of extra fat on your body, and we consider 1kg of fat to contain 7,700 calories, 154,000 reserve calories can be used. If we consider a typical day’s worth of activity to be around 2,000 to 2,500 calories of energy, this means that these fat stores could power a person for 61 to 77 days.
It is important to note that these two compartments are not used simultaneously but sequentially. It is only after you have finished the easy-to-use reservoir that you start to tap into the fat stores.
The amount of insulin in your body controls the movement between the two reservoirs. You will move more energy into your fat stores if you have high insulin. If you have low insulin, your body will start to access fat stores for energy.
This is why controlling insulin is so important for weight loss. If you can keep insulin levels low, your body will start to burn its fat stores for energy, and you will lose weight.