All About Insulin and its Relationship to a Plant-Based Diet
Recently, I’ve become fascinated with the science behind insulin. You hear about it everywhere, from podcasts to medical shows, from the mouth of your doctor to the mouth of your friend. Insulin is a hot health topic and for good reason. It’s incredibly essential to the overall healthy function of the human body, yet it can be incredibly finicky. Outside of a diagnosed medical condition, two of the most influential aspects of insulin production and efficiency are diet and exercise.
The information below has been carefully researched and condensed, with that said, if you are experiencing any health issues or are looking to change your diet or exercise routine, always speak with a medical professional first!
What is Insulin
When medical professionals talk about insulin they throw around a jumble of heavy-winded jargon such as the endocrine system, consisting of all glands that make hormones, metabolic processes, life-sustaining chemical changes within cells, and, most often, hormones, chemical messengers that control most major bodily functions. While the language may be difficult to understand, it doesn’t take long to conclude that insulin plays a huge role in your entire body.
So, what is insulin?
Insulin is a hormone — one of those chemical messengers mentioned above —whose job it is to “regulate metabolic processes that provide cells with needed energy.” More plainly put, insulin allows the body — specifically muscles, fat, and liver — to absorb glucose — sugar found in your blood, absorbed via consumed food and use for energy — from your blood to process and use for vital bodily functions. Where does insulin come from? It’s created in the pancreas, a glandular organ located deep within the abdomen that plays a key role in digestion and controlling blood sugar levels.
What Role Does Insulin Play
This hearty hormone has many roles.
First off, as mentioned above, insulin absorbs glucose from the blood, therefore is vital in managing healthy blood sugar levels. If your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, or if natural insulin production cannot keep up with the amount of consumed glucose, then the amount of sugar in your blood builds up. This condition is referred to as diabetes.
Yet, insulin doesn’t stop there. Once glucose has been absorbed, insulin helps the process in which glucose is used as cellular energy or “converted into fat when needed.” Last, but not least, is insulin’s ability to affect other metabolic processes in the human body. These include the “breakdown of fat” and proteins, both of which are vital components in a healthy functioning body.
Insulin Sensitivity versus Insulin Resistance
This increase in casual conversation around insulin has provided much more opportunity for misunderstanding. This is particularly prevalent when it comes to terms such as “insulin sensitivity” and “insulin resistance”. While one of these is a precursor to the other, they both refer to stages of insulin efficiency and inefficiency and are both incredibly important to your overall health.
Insulin sensitivity, as indicated by the name, refers to how sensitive your body is to the effects of insulin. Those that are insulin sensitive react effectively to the hormone, requiring smaller amounts of insulin to reduce glucose levels, and, therefore, allow their bodies to quickly process glucose and stabilize blood sugar levels. With that said, a high level of insulin sensitivity, referred to as hyperinsulinemia, has been attributed to high blood pressure, osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, and causes issues in those already suffering from type 1 diabetes. Hyperinsulinemia may be caused by stretches of stress or illness and, once it has passed, should return to normal.
Those that have low insulin sensitivity require larger amounts of the insulin hormone to control glucose levels and have a more difficult time stabilizing blood sugar levels. Low insulin sensitivity is a precursor to insulin resistance.
Insulin resistance is the warning sign that you may be on the road towards diabetes. When the body is insulin resistant, this means that it’s having “difficulty metabolizing glucose” which can be a precursor to other conditions such as high blood pressure, raised cholesterol levels, and even diabetes.
Healthy Insulin Through Plant-Based Foods, Exercise, and Sleep
With all that said, what can you do to have a healthy sensitivity to insulin? While there may be medical conditions that cause the pancreas to inefficiently produce insulin, lifestyle plays an incredibly important role in healthy insulin production. Implementing a healthy, plant-hearty diet, complete with plentiful exercise and restful sleep, will increase the health of your insulin!
Crispy Balsamic Roasted Brussels Sprouts/One Green Planet
A plant-based diet naturally incorporates fruits, colorful veggies, herbs, and spices. Luckily, studies have shown that all of these foods help to increase insulin sensitivity!
First off, getting more fiber into your diet is key. Fiber improves gut microbiome (healthy gut bacteria), which has been linked to healthier insulin sensitivity. Fiber is present in plant-based foods such as legumes, oats, flaxseeds, and brussels sprouts, therefore incorporating a recipe, such as this Crispy Balsamic Roasted Brussels Sprouts, will not only be a tasty treat, but also a great way to boost your insulin sensitivity.
Next, boost your antioxidant intake. Antioxidants are powerful compounds that fight oxidative damage and inflammation caused by free radicals. While your body naturally produces some antioxidants, most of these warriors come from your food. Recent studies have linked plant-based compounds, referred to as polyphenols, to increased insulin sensitivity, in part due to the health benefits of polyphenol compounds, but also due to the decrease in bodily inflammation. This is especially prevalent in vegetables and fruits that are bright and colorful such as bell pepper, bananas, radicchio, goji berries, and carrots.
Last, but definitely not least, get creative with herbs and spices! When it comes to increasing insulin sensitivity, focus on the well-known ginger, turmeric, garlic, and the less known fenugreek seeds. This group contains fiber, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and, in the case of ginger, gingerol, a component that increases sugar uptake in muscle cells. Incorporating these into your diet is super easy due to the fact that most plant-based recipes already use these such as these Turmeric Coconut Bites, or this easy Garlic and Herb Chickpea Flatbread, and even this Indian Spicy Potatoes and Broccoli recipe that contains fenugreek seeds!
Regular bouts of activity and exercise is a proven benefit to overall health including better heart health, increased brain performance, and weight management. Yet, exercise is also one of the most effective ways of increasing insulin sensitivity. The Department of Movement Sciences at Maastricht University in the Netherlands published findings which show that “a single bout of exercise can increase insulin sensitivity for at least 16 hours’ post-exercise.”
In April of 2000, the National Institute of Health published the results of a study where 28 participants were monitored during sleep deprivation. While there were few significant changes, the one that stood out was insulin sensitivity before deprivation and after. It was discovered that “sleep deprivation decreased the insulin sensitivity in healthy subjects.” Therefore, getting the appropriate amount of restful sleep every night is a great way to support a healthy insulin production!
For a plethora of more recipes to help you incorporate insulin supporting, plant-based foods, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 10,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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