Our ability to digest complex carbohydrates in the form of bread and pasta depends strongly on our hormones. The primary hormone involved in digesting carbohydrates is insulin. When minimal insulin is released when we are eating carbs, then we easily take the sugar that is in the blood from the food we have eaten and bring it into the cells. If insulin levels are high, it often means that the cells are not absorbing insulin which is called insulin resistance.
The presence of insulin in the blood may decrease the body’s ability to digest fat and lead to weight gain. This is the theory espoused by the Atkins diet that has been gaining in popularity as more people become paleo. In addition to minimal insulin release, it is also important that the blood sugar does not stay consistently high. When the body does not secrete a lot of insulin on a regular basis, than this is very possible. When there is minimal insulin resistance and quick and efficient blood sugar clearance, then the body is set up to uptake glycogen. Glycogen is a stored sugar in the form of carbohydrate in the muscle tissue and liver. It has been popular with endurance athletes in the form of carb loading for a long time. This also relates to our ability to utilize the sugar in the blood
When our liver and muscle tissue are not chronically exposed to high levels of insulin from eating excess carbohydrates, then we easily store glycogen in these tissues. If however we develop insulin resistance from chronically high insulin levels, then we store glycogen as fat. This again is the main reason that many people lose weight initially when following a low carb diet. When the body becomes more sensitive to insulin, then you will not have the sugar in the blood to be stored as fat and it can use carbs as energy. The solution is not necessary avoiding all grains, but instead is developing your body’s ability to be sensitive to and to assimilate sugar.
Ayurvedic herbs have a long history of being used for weight loss and improving blood sugar. My favorites for improving the body’s insulin sensitivity are:
- Cinnamon – This herb derived from cinnamon bark has many varieties depending on where it is grown but all of them show an effect on managing blood sugar after eating grains, pasta or bread. Some varieties have been shown to increase your body’s ability to digest complex carbohydrates by 10 times.
- Barberry – Barberry contains a chemical constituent called berberine that is found in many other herbs. Barberry has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity by affecting the signaling between insulin and the receptors on the cells and the tissues. This improved receptor activation improves the cells and tissues ability to uptake sugar in the blood so that it does not end up stored in the fat.
- Honne – This less common tree bark has been used in Ayurveda to improve the pancreases ability to produce insulin. This improvement in insulin production has been identified to reduce blood sugar levels by 21% after a high carbohydrate meal was consumed.
- Fenugreek – Fenugreek is a seed used as a common cooking spice in Ayurveda. Similar to barberry it is able to improve the absorption of glycogen into the muscle cells so that it can be used as fuel instead of being stored as fat.
As with most Ayurvedic herbs, they work best in combination. Ayurvedic herbalism employs an sophisticated system of tastes in order to personalize formulas to minimize their side effects. The best way to take these herbs is to eat them before your meal.
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