Day 0

Motivation #1

Ok so it all starts tomorrow morning! To be honest it can’t come quick enough and I gave in to treats way too much over this week after the two months of hard work I’d put in before this, and don’t think I’ll ever have a cheat week again! Headaches and nausea at the moment are pushing me to a good nights sleep and crack on with the first step tomorrow.

I’ll be posting all of my pre challenge stats tomorrow after I’ve tested them and I’ll give weekly updates as to all the changes I get and more importantly how I feel because of it. I’ll be posting more regularly on twitter as to what I do and any new things that I’m try so follow me on their @mfiblog and I’d love it if anyone wants to join in with me. Let me know if you do at #improvementchallenge so we can try and support each other as it’s always harder to do it alone!

Finally I will continue to post about various health and fitness topics as time allows so follow the blog to keep up on those and let me know anything interesting you find or would like me to post about.

So then, see you on the other side

Leptin

So following on from my last post I know that this week and for the next three days I’m going to continue to be playing havoc with my hormones as well as my strength, weight and energy. I’m starting to feel very guilty about this but will make a much more interesting experiment starting Monday and I can’t wait! But for this reason, today I’ve decided to write about Leptin, a hormone that I think is little known about or understood (at least I knew very little about it) but which has a big impact on health.

Leptin is a relatively new hormone in terms of being discovered, in the late 90’s, and so where other parts of health and weight loss have been utilised for years this is not the case with leptin. It also is part of the reason that many experts in the health world slate the calories in/calories out model and helps explain why people who are overweight can find it difficult to make those first changes if their hormones are working incorrectly.

First of all lets look at what leptin is. Adipose tissue that we store as subcutaneous fat isn’t just there as an energy store and actually works as an organ which absorbs certain toxins and produces other elements for the body including the hormone leptin. The main role of leptin is to control appetite and metabolism based on fat storage and food intake.

To explain it lets look at how we used to work historically. As we have evolved from paleolithic man right up to rationing during World War II we have had to go through periods of feasting and periods of famine. This is something our bodies are used to and designed for and actually thrives in. During periods of feasting we want to try and store fat and during periods of famine we have to eat into this stored fat to survive, our bodies main purpose. Fat stores can be controlled by food types and other hormone manipulation such as insulin but lets look at purely what happens to the leptin.

When feasting we have ample stores of fat and our brain always wants to make sure that we have enough for those periods of famine. Our adipose stores produce the leptin which sends a signal to the hypothalamus in the brain telling it that there is enough for a period with absence of food and as long as we are continuing to eat enough the brain keeps metabolism high and appetite low.

Now during these periods of famine our bodies start eating into stored muscle and fat to survive. As fat stores decrease the leptin sends a signal to the brain to tell it that it needs to try and spare the remaining body fat as the body does not know how long this famine will continue for. The brain then decreases metabolism and increases appetite to counteract this.

In my research this is one of several reasons that I have found that calories in/calories out doesn’t work. As we diet and exercise we are both restricting calories and increasing output. Our bodies go into a starvation mode if this is prolonged and so leptin slows our metabolism and makes will power even harder as we want to eat more. Even though we will begin to lose weight originally, plateaus will be reached as soon as the effect of leptin kicks in and the lower the calories or the more jogging we then do, the worse the situation gets.

Looking at this hormonal response there is a common sense approach to weight loss which should allow an easier road to decreasing fat mass and make it sustainable. First is eating a diet of sufficient calories for your output but at the same time does not spike insulin so you are not going to store everything as adipose tissue. Combine this with HIIT training and resistance training to keep metabolism and muscle mass as high as possible without doing a lot of cardio which puts us into starvation mode.

On a personal note during my 3 month experiment I will also be conducting MMA training 2-3 times a week which could potentially lead to training that is more than optimal but I enjoy it far too much to cut it out. To balance this I have read that having irregular ‘cheat days’ will keep leptin levels high while allowing a fairly high training volume. I will just keep these cheat days to a high calorie but high nutrient day so lots of sweet potatoes/fruit/rice etc for the day. A re feed needs to be carb based as this promotes insulin release which in turn promotes leptin release.

The final thing that I want to talk about is leptin resistance, a phrase I had heard often but had no idea what it was. Its very simple really and is hugely important for people who are overweight and looking to lose. If we are leptin resistant then we have high fat stores which means that the brain should be getting signals from the leptin produced to raise metabolism and decrease appetite. However there is so much chaos in the body that the body is producing the leptin but the brain doesn’t recognise this and so lowers metabolism and increases appetite. When you then combine this with insulin resistance it encourages constant weight gain, further hormone resistance and associated health problems. As with insulin resistance as well, the longer we have high leptin levels in our blood stream from high body fat content, the more resistant we can become to it.

Leptin resistance can be caused by a multitude of factors. Leptin and insulin are strongly combined so insulin resistance can be a major factor. Overeating or undereating, excessive fructose intake, poor sleep, stress and intake of wheat have all been linked with leptin resistance. If you are overweight and trying to get healthier hopefully you have already established that calorie restriction and excessive exercise are not a way to healthily or consistently lose weight. You also have to understand that as you improve the quality of your food you may not lose weight straight away until your hormones improve and then the body will start to change for the better in a way that is sustainable. Re feeds are not advised when beginning to make a change if you are overweight as your body is so used to high levels of insulin/leptin you want to reduce these for a while as you will be very sensitive to their production. Mark Sisson has a very good and detailed post if you want any further information.

If you are still reading to the end of this post I thank you as I know I get quite passionate about reading and learning about this stuff and so have a lot to say as I want other people to understand everything as I do. I really would welcome any feedback about this article and any of my other past articles and if anyone wants to request a particular post on something just put a comment in at the end. I do have a big list of things I want to write about but I can bump things up the list if I know someone out there is very keen to learn about something in particular. Stay healthy, stay happy.

Why feeling like crap has made me happy and the next 3 months

So me and my girlfriend are 3 days into a much anticipated holiday and it’s going great apart from one thing, diet. I knew before we left that it would be difficult as so far we have spent our time in the West Country where the breakfast at our hotel is cereal and toast and we have vouchers for chain restaurants for evening meals. We are also off to stay with my parents for a few days tomorrow and their pantry does not make clean eating easy.

Like I said I knew from the beginning this would be difficult and I could go one of two ways and either try bed eat well and right for me which would be do able but difficult and expensive or take some time off and the risks that come with it.

I’ve really been enjoying eating well over the last 8 weeks and only had two cheat days in that entire time but to be honest I quite liked the idea of being on holiday and not looking for the meal that’s nutritionally best for me all the time but I have a bit of a hinge mentality to everything and it took over here to.

Yes I have overdone it and the desert from my meal tonight probably had more sugar than I’ve consumed in the last two months and I feel awful. And I don’t just mean psychologically. In the last three days I’ve developed multiple gut issues and felt lethargic in a way that I haven’t since uni. I’m actually really looking forward to getting home so I can go back to eating the way I have been again but I have my parents house full of ‘healthy whole grains’ and low fat options to navigate before that happens.

Now I am going to try and improve my habits while I’m there (because I don’t think my body can handle another insulin tidal wave) but my nans homemade baking will be hard to resist when it’s been made ‘just for me’ so i’ll be far from the 90/10 I’ve come to live by over the last two months.

This has made me think if two things. Firstly is how much of an improvement this eating has done for my body in terms of health. As I’ve always been exercising and had a half decent diet before, although I’ve felt improved, improvements always come slowly. The negative effects of the last three days however have come fast and strong and really showed me what benefits I was giving myself and although I feel lousy now, this knowledge has made me really happy. Whenever I hear other peoples stories they always say how they felt great when they started eating paleo/low carb etc and I’ve felt good but never had a huge improvement at anytime. The slow improvements must have been adding up day by day though as now I’ve taken it all away, and gone back to how i was before I started it all it feels shocking and it will be interesting to see how long it will take to get back to where i was.

The second is I’ve decided to turn this into an experiment on myself. When I get back home I’m going to take some base measurements of what i can. I will then treat myself as a science project. For the first ten days I will go on a strict ketogenic diet for ten days as a detox and try finish this with an intermittent fast and re measure my baseline to see what effect I have had in ten days. I will then go back onto what I see as an optimal diet from what I have read. For this I will be eating low carb most of the time with carb cycling after intense training sessions preferably in a carb back loading format. Finally in this I will be following a minimum of 20 fasts every 5-10 days around my lifestyle and ‘cheat days’ around every 2 weeks where I will still be avoiding any gluten/grains.

I known the beer will sneak in here or there as it’s part of life and I want to enjoy it but I want to stick to this as much as possible as a 3 month trial till Christmas and see what I can achieve. I had great results in the last two months and though I might have undone some of it this week I think I can go a lot further by Christmas.

The protocol I will be following has come from all the reading and research I have done and I know that I haven’t managed to make a post on any of this in the last couple of weeks but I’ve just been really busy and want to try and make them good enough to be worth reading but I am
Still always trying to do my own earning and I will endeavour to put something up for you guys soon. Till then I’m going to enjoy the rest of my holiday and see you in whatever state I’m in when I come out the other side.

HIIT

As many people will know HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training and today I’m going to look at its efficacy, the benefits and downsides of it and a few different training protocols that recommend it.

First of all HIIT training is as it says on the tin, high intensity. I have heard a lot of people say that they did 45 minutes of HIIT training which is pretty much biologically impossible. After I do 3-4 minutes of HIIT training I have been sick on a number of occasions and at the very least want to curl up in a ball and hide till my lungs recover. It is possible to do HIIT training submaximally (as is outlined in the protocols later) but I would argue this is partly aerobic training, which while having a plethora of its own benefits is not HIIT.

HIIT can be done in any way you choose, the way I tend to do it is either via straight sprints or sprints on a static bike (although I waddle down the stairs like I’ve had an experience from an alien abduction after these), but burpees, cross trainer and rowing are all viable options if you find they work you enough. Some people even choose to do it with weights and there are benefits to this but personally I feel that you need to do it with compound movements and as you get tired during the training session, this could lead to injury.

When you do HIIT training, in the short term there are huge stresses on the body. The muscles need a lot of blood as the blood carries oxygen which is what causes the ache in your muscles and your bursting lungs while you are training as your body can never get enough oxygen to them. Your metabolism raises by dramatically and remains elevated for a long time after exercise. When researching it now I could not find the link but I have seen a study before which indicated that sprinting increased metabolism by up to 8 times resting and it remains there for 24-48 hours. In contrast long distance running raised it by 2-3 times which came back to resting in a couple of hours and in the long term their metabolism actually slowed as the body tried to save energy and went into starvation mode due to the amount of long distance running they were doing. When you do intense work your body needs to utilise the stored glycogen for energy and so starts depleting this for energy where during low intensity exercise it adopts fat stores for energy (and on an interesting side note, this release of glycogen to the bloodstream temporarily increases insulin release and takes people temporarily out of ketosis if they are in it).

I will cover the pros and cons of low intensity steady state exercise another time but I want to make a point that HIIT training is actually better for fat burning as although you do not directly access fat stores while doing the exercise, you become better at burning fat as your body wants to save its glycogen for your next HIIT session and this combined with the elevated metabolism burns 3 times more fat than a long run.

Thanks to all these short term changes, there are long term benefits. First of these is increased oxidative capacity of the muscles. This basically means that your muscles can better get access to oxygen thanks to extra blood vessels that grow to the muscles, and improved ability to take in oxygen by the air you breath, because of how hard you worked last time. On top of this your heart grows to pump blood out more powerfully and so when you rest your heart rate slows as it is pumping more blood (this is why Lance Armstrongs heart rate was in the low 30’s!). The next time you exercise you can then work harder before you get tired. You also store more glycogen in your muscles (the energy source needed for hard work), but actually use less glycogen generally and in low level exercise as training in this way increases lipid oxidation on a day to day basis. This means you burn fat when your walking around and save your glycogen for your hard work. You also produce less lactate and people show a better ability to work through lactic acid production in time to exhaustion tests. To summarise the above you get fitter and burn fat while doing only a short amount of work, pretty nifty ey.

Pros
Increases oxygen uptake by muscles
Increases oxygen intake by lungs
Increases size and efficiency of your heart
Makes you burn more fat and spare glycogen
Improves performance
Very short amount of time
Healthier than long distance running
Less wear and tear on joints than long distance exercise

Cons
It hurts!
There is a risk of injury if you start training this way having not built up for it, or you perform weighted exercises with poor form
People find it difficult to comprehend you can get all the ‘cardio’ you need in a few minutes a week

So if you have been convinced to give these a go there are a few possible protocols you could try;

Tabata
Created by Izumi Tabata back in 1996 this in one of the most popular and my favourite way to do HIIT training. The principle in that you perform 8 cycles of 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest at 170% of VO2 max totalling four minutes training where you are actually sprinting for only 2 minutes 40 seconds. Unless you have a science laboratory to know what 170% of your VO2 max is, basically just go nuts and work yourself into the ground doing your chosen activity for 20 seconds and then stop for 10 seconds. It has become so popular that you can find free tabata timer apps so you don’t have to count. Just be aware that you will find things online that talk about doing a tabata two times through or a 10 minute tabata. If after your first set you can do another one, you haven’t worked hard enough. The benefits tabata found in his study was based on doing the training 5 times a week but having tried it myself I have found good benefits doing between 1-3 times a week depending on free time when combined with weight lifting days too.

Gibala
A study by Gibala which showed all of the health and fitness benefits that we stated previously and is a good protocol for people beginning HIIT was performed in 2006. For this protocol you work all out for 30 seconds but with four minute recovery time for 6 rounds. This means that the overall work time is just more than the tabata workout but you have far more recovery time but still get to see the health benefits. He found physiological adaptations in the individuals after just six sessions over two weeks.

Hurricanes
The hurricane workout is a phrase coined by Martin Rooney, a well respected MMA, American football and other sports strength and conditioning coach. His workouts are more complicated than the two above and so if you are interested I would suggesting looking at his work. They are super effective but also need more equipment. Simplified down you run hard on a treadmill for around 20 seconds, then perform a set of resistance exercises and then get straight back on the treadmill for 9 rounds. The speed and incline of the treadmill and the difficulty of the resistance exercises are then progressed as fitness improves.

There are numerous other protocols if you want to go searching from them most of which are evidence based. 3 more I will briefly run through range from the relatively easy Timmons protocol of 20 seconds sprint, 2 minutes rest for 3 repeats. The tough Little protocol of 60 seconds work, followed by 75 seconds rest for 8-12 rounds, and the gruelling Trapp protocol of 8 seconds sprint with twelve seconds rest that you repeat for 20 minutes.

In conclusion having looked at the evidence there are huge benefits to sprinting and it appears to be far better than any other sort of exercise. I have been doing 1-2 sessions a week for a while now and subjectively it has made a difference and looking at the research only convinces me to continue this, although with my other training I do not feel the need to increase it. I would urge anyone out there who is stuck in the mental trap of feeling they need to go for long runs to give themselves a six week experiment of doing no long runs and picking any of the above protocols and just doing them to absolute failure a couple of times a week and seeing what results you get and let me know as I always welcome feedback. I think that combining HIIT with some weights sessions provide the healthiest and most time efficient way to train giving you results that are on par if not exceeding other sorts of training (at least for us mere mortals)

I heard something relatively interesting recently. A well respected fitness trainer was explaining that there aren’t any benefits to fasted HIIT training as being in a fasted state releases fatty acids but the body cannot utilise these in HIIT training as it needs glucose for this intensity work. This makes a lot of sense but he then said that the body will then re store these fatty acids when you stop training which negates the benefits of it. I could not understand this as although the science of the comment makes sense, I don’t think it takes into account the benefit of raised metabolism and the break down of fatty acids into ketones due to this raised metabolism. This should have an effect on weight loss even if you continue to fast after exercise. If I am wrong you could still HIIT train while fasted to fully deplete muscle glycogen and then re fuel immediately after but I feel you would get benefits on continuing to fast for an hour or so post HIIT as long as you take some BCAA’s to preserve muscle tissue. Does anyone else have any opinions on this?

Gluten

So today I will be covering gluten. Gluten is something that is way out there at the moment with many people finding either the health benefits (or it being really trendy) to go gluten free with many celebrities endorsing it, including most recently Miley Cyrus. So what is gluten and why are so many people trying to avoid it even if not going paleo?

In its most simple form gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye, oats etc. Proteins good though right? Wrong in this case but will get to the reason why later. The gluten is a large protein that is water soluble and creates the elasticity in many of the things it is in such as bread. Because of this as well as its naturally occurring forms it is now added to all sorts of food as a thickener or to change the texture so even food such as sausages and sauces often have added gluten.

There are two levels of reactions to gluten. There is a full blown allergy to gluten known as coeliacs disease which is thought to affect about 1 in 133 people but is probably much high than this as it is often misdiagnosed from the symptoms. The most common symptoms for coeliacs are based around digestive issues such as vomiting, chronic diarrhoea, bloating, stomach cramps and weight loss. Coeliacs disease is a congenital condition and the individuals who suffer from it need to totally avoid any form of gluten due to the strong reactions by their body which left untreated have extremely negative side effects and recent study has linked it to premature death. The other level is gluten sensitivity.

Gluten sensitivity is basically a milder form of coeliacs and an individual who suffers from it may not even know they have it until they try eliminating gluten from their diet and then reintroduce it and see what the effects are on them. Gluten sensitivity is thought to affect around a third of people but again is probably greatly underreported due to (at least up until recently) it not being considered as a medical problem and lack of knowledge in the area. One of the theories as to why gluten sensitivity has come about is the abundance of it in our diet. It is well known that if you eat large quantities of any food over a long period of time you develop an intolerance to it. With the level of grain based carbohydrates society eats and the addition of gluten into other types of food we ingest relative huge quantities of gluten which may well have led to the rise of modern day gluten sensitivity compared to previously. It has also been suggested the type of farming and cooking methods that we have now has increased the level of gluten in grains and its product like bread etc, and so the food we eat today is much higher in it than even 30 years ago.

These negative reactions occur in the body because gluten creates an autoimmune response. When it is eaten, rather than the body recognising it as something that needs to be digested, it sees it as a foreign body that needs to be attacked. Because of this it sends antibodies to the area and creates inflammation in the gut and as we eat a lot of gluten this inflammation never dies down. This chronic inflammation in the gut destroys the villi over time meaning that nutrients can’t be absorbed as well and this eventually can lead to leaky gut syndrome where your body has much less control over what passes into and out of the linings of your intestines letting toxins into your bloodstream.

Interestingly the autoimmune response is not reserved purely for the gut and the ingestion of gluten ends up creating a systemic inflammation for the whole body and its organs. This can lead to further symptoms such as fatigue, joint pain, depression, skin complaints and hundreds more as the antibodies from the systemic inflammation affect all our major organs. This response can also decrease serotonin levels, adding to the negative impact on mood, but also meaning your body tries to relieve this through sugar and carbohydrates, increasing weight gain. Scarily if you try and look at the research on the negative effects of gluten most of the studies I looked at were focusing on their impact on the brain and nervous system indicating links to many neuropathies, most common of which appeared to be ataxia and schizophrenia.

Most of us are so used to eating gluten we may not even notice many of these complaints as they are normal to us. From my personal experience, since cleaning up my diet a huge amount about 6-7 weeks ago I have a felt a little better but then I gave myself my only cheat day so far in this period a fortnight ago. I tried to keep it to mainly sugar based treats but when me and my girlfriend went out for the day to a country manor they had so awesome looking rustic bread so I thought ‘Hey its cheat day’ and went for it. The bloating after this was phenomenal but I’m not sure if this was the gluten or the wheat that did it for me, but then in the evening I had a bowl of porridge and this gave me huge stomach cramps for nearly an hour. These were only some subjective markers and I cannot scientifically attribute them to solely the gluten in the carbohydrates but its definitely something I’m going to keep avoiding as much as I can.

There are tests you can get to see if you have coeliacs disease but if you are going to get tested do not start on a gluten free diet beforehand as this takes away to autoimmune markers they need to diagnose the coeliacs. If you think you are just gluten sensitive or like me just wanted to experiment with the difference in how you feel if you eliminate it then great. My advice would be to give it a go and see if you feel better but even if you decide to keep eating gluten then try and limit your intake as you don’t know what its doing to other organs for the future. It is difficult to do though as gluten is hidden in so many products. The only way to truly do it is to eat plain meat and veg so I’m sure some sneaks in now and then but I feel that even if you significantly decrease the amount you ingest this can only have a positive affect on your body to start healing itself, although many people say this can take some time.

Insulin

Firstly let me apologise for the length of time it has taken to write this post and the length of the post itself but due to the huge importance of insulin in the body this was not one to skimp on. I’ll break it down into the basics of what insulin is and how it works and then later on in this post I will try and go a bit more I depth for those of you that want to learn how to maximise knowledge on insulin and how to use it to your advantage like I do.

Insulin is the centre of the universe in terms of hormones for health, weight loss and muscle gain and people hear all about it on Atkins/low carb diets but who truly understands what it is and how it works. Is it always best to keep it as low as possible, do we want spikes in insulin sometimes or is there a happy middle ground?

What is it?
Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas and its basic role in the human body is as a key to open cell walls for nutrients to enter cells. It is not very specific in what it affects and so will open the cell wall in muscle, liver and fat cells allowing in the glucose in the blood stream to be stored along with other nutrients and fat. When controlled this is an extremely beneficial process as we should be burning the glycogen in our muscles and liver which then need to be replenished and producing some insulin when we eat lets us top our stores back up. However with too much insulin there can be extremely detrimental effects.

How can it go wrong?
Insulin production is directly proportional to the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. Prolonged excessive glucose levels in the bloodstream is toxic and so the body needs to get it stored as fast as possible and the most dense source of glucose is carbohydrate. This means that when we eat high levels of carbohydrate (especially simple carbs like sugar which spike insulin production even more) the high insulin levels that are produced encourage storage of all this excess glucose.

This is ok if we have low levels of glycogen stored and need to replenish the stores but our muscles and liver combined only store roughly 400 grams of carbs at any one time. If you consider that an average day in western society could be cereal and toast followed by a muffin and late mid morning, a sandwich at lunch and then stir fry with noodles for tea and possibly a dessert. This can give us over 400 grams of carbs in one day and even if your exercising you very rarely deplete the stored glycogen by more than 50%. So what happens to the excess glucose?

It gets converted into triglycerides that are then stored as fat and on top of this, the fat that you ate from your last meal also gets stored giving a double weight gain whammy and there’s a cherry to go on top of this lipid storing insulin cake. The presence of high insulin levels in the blood actually prevents the body from releasing stored fat as energy by inhibiting lipase, which is the enzyme that breaks down fat. When your body then quickly stores all of this glucose in the fat cells and blood blood sugar levels drop, we get hungry again, eat again, spike insulin again and if we haven’t exercised to burn any glycogen in the muscles/liver then this next meal gets stored straight as fat and the process starts again.

As we only have a finite number of fat cells eventually these too can get filled to our maximum capacity which causes chaos to our body and this will be discussed in the geekfest at the end of this article.

What is insulin sensitivity/resistance
So we hear a lot about insulin resistance and insulin sensitivity so what are they? Well when we have constant high levels of insulin in our bodies due to eating a lot of carbs/sugar, our bodies become so used to these high levels that the cells of the muscle and liver don’t respond to normal levels of insulin as they are always full of glycogen and don’t need anymore. This is called insulin resistance. When you initially become insulin resistant this will mean that excess glucose will be sent straight to the fat cells for storage as discussed earlier until these to become insulin resistant which then leaves us with high levels of insulin and high levels of glucose floating in the bloodstream which is very bad for the body. If we also become insulin resistant the pancreas recognises that blood glucose is still too high and releases more insulin increasing our insulin resistance.

The opposite of this is becoming insulin sensitive which means that your muscle and liver cells respond well to insulin and will absorb all the glucose it possibly can in the presence of insulin before sending excess to fat cells. This is best achieved by keeping low resting levels of insulin and not creating too many insulin spikes, and by exercising in a way that depletes some of the stored glycogen so it needs to be restored. This is done with hard work such as weightlifting that is heavy for you and short/hard cardio sessions like sprints. These require the stored glycogen to be utilised where a long run burns predominantly fat and not much stored glycogen.

Is insulin ever good?
Yes. Insulin is a naturally produced hormone that is designed to create homeostasis for the body. Without it we wouldn’t store the glucose of fat that we need to survive. We can also use our knowledge of its storage role for maximal muscle growth (which will be discussed in a blog post of carb cycling/carb backloading). However what we need to understand from the science is that it responds too strongly to high carbohydrate and high sugar foods for these to be a major part of a healthy diet and need to be regulated to regulate insulin production.

Bonus material
It is useful to know on a very basic level that there are some organs in the body for which glucose is necessary. The nervous system needs glucose to function as does the brain which leads to a common myth that we need to eat sugar. In fact the nervous system uses so little that a minor intake even irregularly is enough to sustain them and the brain can adapt to predominantly run on ketones that are produced on a low carb diet. Ketones will be explored in a other post. The body can also convert protein into glucose if its needed. This is another reason that we don’t need to constantly need to be eating carbs for energy as long as we eat a reasonable amount of protein. This is where the idea that you break down muscles if you don’t eat regularly comes from but you will only be eating your muscle tissue if you are not eating enough protein. Insulin production will be enough when eating protein and fats to store them in the muscles without raising the levels enough to produce insulin resistance. You are more sensitive to in the mornings and less sensitive in the evenings meaning that you are going to experience more of a spike and store more of what you eat by having carbs in the morning which is why it is best to save any carbs you do want to eat till later in the day.

Recap
I will discuss some more parts below if you want to know more about what I found about the biochemistry and physiology of insulin but if you only want to understand the basics for health then just read this recap:

1) Insulin causes storage of glucose predominantly but also storage of fat
2) It will first fill up muscles and liver with glucose before storing it in fat cells
3) If there is never any space in the liver/muscles it will store more and more fat and produce more insulin leading to insulin resistance
4) The way to promote insulin sensitivity is too eat a diet low in glucose such as processed carbohydrates and sugar and to limit natural carbs such as potatoes unless its after the correct sort of exercise.
5) The correct sort of exercise is lifting weights that are heavy for you and doing short but intense cardio sessions

Geeky Stuff
Continue reading for more a more in depth look at the development of type 2 diabetes, why muscle breakdown can occur with insulin resistance, the inflammatory properties of insulin, the short term affects of high insulin production, ways we can control insulin levels and finally further uses for insulin in the body.

First lets look at the short term effect of a high insulin producing meal, e.g. your mid morning muffin and latte. This food gives you a high blood glucose level which originally makes you feel really good and giving you a lot of energy. However as we have discussed as this is toxic to the body to have it in the blood the pancreas dumps a load of insulin due to the high levels of glucose to store it. This rapid storage of the glucose (be it to muscle or fat cells) causes that well known ‘sugar crash’ when there is suddenly no more glucose left in the blood stream. As a lot of peoples bodies are constantly eating high carbohydrate food their bodies and especially their brains rely on the glucose for energy as their body hasn’t adapted to use anything else (such as fat or ketones) for daily activities. This leads to grumpiness, tiredness and the classic shakes until you eat something else sugary which gives you a boost again, you get another dump of insulin and it runs in a vicious cycle.

A more in depth look at the sugar crash reveals even more problems, when the body first loses all its blood glucose it perceives this as stressful and releases adrenaline and cortisol in response. The cortisol then breaks down your muscles and takes the them to the liver where, by a complicated process called gluconeogenesis, converts them into glucose for energy, producing yet more insulin and more storage. On top of this when you have the insulin and cortisol together this encourages the storage of fat so your losing muscle and getting fatter! This also happens when we become insulin resistant as after the continued abuse of the way insulin works, when the liver cannot absorb the glucose from the blood stream due to the resistance it believes it is starved of glucose, breaks down more muscle for even more glucose. At the same time because the muscles are also resistant and so cannot absorb the glucose, this also means they cannot absorb amino acids as insulin is important for transferring these across too and so muscles get broken down and they cannot build back up. In short in terms of looks, high insulin levels are very bad.

This is what eventually leads to type 2 diabetes. We now know that due to permanent high levels of insulin the muscles/liver cant absorb more glucose as they become resistant to it so it is sent straight to fat cells until the fat cells are full to maximum capacity. The body thinks if that amount of insulin is not enough then more will help but due to everywhere being totally full we are left with high levels of toxic glucose in the blood, together with high levels of insulin. This creates Advanced Glycation End Products (AGE’s) which is where the excess glucose binds with important proteins in the blood making them useless. This creates inflammation in the blood stream and heart and neuropathies which are recognisable in type 2 diabetics as the pins and needles/numbness they often get in extremities. The Pancreatic beta cells (which make the insulin) are constantly trying to produce more and more insulin to counteract this until eventually they give up and stop working giving a very similar response to type 1 diabetics who do not produce enough insulin and need to inject it. Much of the information here is from reading material by Mark Sisson and I would highly advise his book, ‘The Primal Blueprint’ if you want to know more.

Finally in terms of health lets look at the effect of long term high levels of insulin. Insulin itself is very pro inflammatory (especially when mixed with other hormones like cortisol). It is a major part of atherosclerosis where it encourages cells to stick together and white blood cells to convert into foam cells that then suck up fat and stick to the blood vessel walls. This shows that it is not the fat itself that causes heart attacks and strokes but it is the insulin that causes them to stick. The insulin also makes the blood thicker by getting it to stick together and makes cell walls harder by reducing levels of nitric oxide that relax them all making it harder for the blood to get through any fat lined blood cells.

There are ways that are known to help blunt the insulin spike post meal. The most common of these is to consume a small amount of healthy fats either before or with a meal that might spike insulin such a small handful of almonds or some good quality butter etc. Cinnamon has also been shown to help reduce this spike and increase insulin sensitivity in humans and although this has the most evidence (and is probably the tastiest, there is also evidence of insulin sensitivity benefits from turmeric, bay leaves and cloves. Tim Ferris also reports in his book ‘The Four Hour Body’ that he found that citrus fruit such as lemon juice or a small amount of fructose (he uses a glass of grapefruit juice) before consuming high amounts of processed sugar and carbs helped blunt his insulin response on his cheat days. Finally is the good old cure all of some high intensity exercise which also has a good effect on insulin sensitivity and response. It is very interesting though that in the short term during intense exercise, because the stored glycogen is the main form of energy used, the body ‘up regulates’ glucose production and utilisation from the muscles (makes more and uses it better) which in turn gives a rise in insulin for 30-60 minutes post exercise. This is worth exploring for muscle growth and possibly not needing huge amount of carbs to spike insulin post workout at a later date. It is also well worth noting that prolonged low intensity exercise had the opposite effect of blunting glucagon (the opposite to insulin) and human growth hormone (needed to build muscle).

The time of day also plays a major part of insulin sensitivity and resistance. John Kiefer, the author of ‘Carb Backloading’ and ‘Carb Nite’ protocols discusses this at length and I will do a full post in the near future on these. The basics of it though is that you are more sensitive to insulin in the mornings and more resistant in the evenings. This gives you two ways to look at when it would be best to incorporate carbs into your diet if you are going to at all. In the morning with insulin being a lot more sensitive you are better adapted to deal with higher levels of glucose and store it in the correct place, however as we know if you have not got any depleted glycogen at that time this storage will be in fat cells, plus the presence of high insulin and cortisol (a hormone that is in abundance high in the morning as it wakes you up) encourages the storage of fat. Plus if insulin stays high from your mornings breakfast (depending on what you had) this will encourage your fat cells to retain the fat until insulin levels drop preventing fat burning for a good portion of your day. If you have the carbs later in the evening when your body is more insulin resistant you are going to find it harder to store the glucose that you do consume in the muscles and liver meaning that it potentially goes into fat storage straight away. There are a host of other hormone responses from IGF1 and HGH in the evening and these can be manipulated but exercise which is why I will cover all this in another post. Essentially just understand that that morning = sensitive, evening = resistant and as knowledge grows we can establish if and when you would prefer to increase insulin.

Conclusion
From everything I have found from reading around insulin so far I have a few takeaway messages for myself and it’s up to you whether your conclusions are the same as mine. High levels of insulin, especially if prolonged are extremely bad for the body leading to insulin resistance which leads to fat gain and muscle breakdown and eventually type 2 diabetes. The ways to prevent this is to keep relatively low but stable levels of insulin. This is achievable by eating a diet that is low in carbohydrates such as paleo/ketogenic/atkins or dukan style diets. I am not saying that all these are healthy as I am yet to investigate all the other sides but from a purely insulin perspective they make sense. There are times when insulin spiking may be beneficial as with exercise you deplete stored glycogen and need to replace this and timings in the morning or evening can also play a part in this but you don’t want to keep insulin raised for too long. If you are going to do this it is worth knowing that High GI foods such as sugar, bread etc will spike insulin high in a shorter period of time but then drop it in a much shorter period of time where low GI like brown rice will make it rise and fall more slowly which will become important when we learn more about carb timing. Personally, until I research something which says otherwise I’m going to endeavour to keep my insulin down with a low carbohydrate diet with the exception of a small amount after really intense exercise just to replace some of the lost glycogen (and to let me give in the my penchant, honey).

Future related blogs that will help tie in the body systems that include insulin will be:
Carb Backloading
Ketones
Protein and its breakdown in a lack of carbohydrates
Cortisol
IGF1
HGH

About My Blog

So I’m a regular guy. I have a full time job, commitments and a social life that mean life is often less than ideal for health but that doesn’t mean I don’t care and want to improve. I go to the gym a couple of times a week to keep fit and practice MMA and BJJ as a hobby two to three times a week wherever I can.

 I’ve always been into health and fitness but that doesn’t mean I’ve ever been that great at either. When I was growing up I’ve always played a lot of sport and I definitely wasn’t bad at it either, but as a kid I was chubby and although I lost a lot of this in my teenage years I’m still no cover model. However I can be a bit of a geek and always looking to improve at whatever I’m doing.

I grew up with the conventional wisdom that healthy grains, low fat diets and lots of steady state exercise was the way forward and stuck to this religiously but seeing no gains from it. Playing rugby at the time I still got in some better training and did weights which helped a bit, but never had any dramatic gains. About two years ago I was introduced to the paleo diet by a friend. I bought it pretty much straight away but could never quite shake those cravings or social pressures that meant I never stuck to even the 80/20 principal level and so although I got some benefits, they were never optimal and meant that I would go through strict and lax periods.

After starting a new job where I’m doing a lot of shift work and not being able to train quite as much I have been super strict the last three weeks and finally seen some great benefits from it, losing weight and feeling good. This got me thinking, although I am following what I class to be a paleo lifestyle at the moment, paleo has become so stigmatised what even is paleo? There’s so much infighting about safe starches and dairy etc that as a pretty relative newcomer to any sort of seriousness in this world I don’t know who is right. The way I am eating is to avoid grains and starchy veg, eat a lot of meat and even more fat. My training is quite sporadic but intense and I’m (slowly) working on my sleep patterns. I know all of these things are advocated but I don’t actually know why. Of course I want to lose fat and gain muscle like nearly all people but I trust this will happen if I eat optimally for my body but what is optimally? Is paleo too strict and can we handle some things that they exclude or are some things that included actually detrimental?

As a bit of a geek I don’t feel comfortable basing my whole life round a principle that I don’t fully understand. There are a load of incredible and knowledgeable people out there and I listen to their podcasts and read their books and find them fascinating but most of these guys are so good that when they talk about what they consider to be fundamentals such as adrenal fatigue or IGF1, it flies over my head. This has led me to a state of paralysis by overanalysis and without even understanding the foundation I’ve been getting hung up on the finer details such as nutrient timing or carb backloading.

 What I propose is to start back at the beginning. I want to take an unbiased look at hormones, nutrients, training techniques, supplements, sleep and anything else to do with health, look at the research and truly understand what each of these things are, how are bodies react to each of them, and understand principles to live by rather than trying to remember experts advice. I will be having to start basic for myself and build on this knowledge over time. I don’t expect to, or even want to, become an expert. Just a knowledgeable amateur who understands and cares about his own health, and if I can help people here along the way then all the better.

I have no doubt some sort of paleo/ancestral eating pattern is the way forward but I don’t know to what extent and if I turn out to be wrong, so be it. As I discover certain aspects of health I hope to guinea pig them on myself and find what the results are which hopefully will then help anyone reading this blog, and if you understand the principles too then you can draw your own conclusions. Every journey starts with a single step so lets take it…