If you have diabetes or prediabetes, you probably have heard about insulin sensitivity, a key to maintaining good blood sugar levels and diabetes management. But what is it exactly? And, more importantly, why and how can you efficiently increase it?
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What is Insulin Sensitivity?
Insulin sensitivity refers to how sensitive your body is to insulin. It’s an essential factor in diabetes development and management. But, before entering more details, let’s understand how insulin works.
How does insulin work?
Insulin is a hormone naturally produced by the pancreas to help control blood sugar levels. When you eat, your body breaks down carbohydrates into sugar (glucose) which enters your bloodstream. Insulin helps your body's cells take in that glucose so they can be used it for energy.
Think of insulin as a key that unlocks the door to the cells. Without insulin, glucose can't enter the cells. Instead, it stays in the blood, causing high blood sugar levels and severe diabetes-related complications.
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Insulin sensitivity, insulin resistance, and diabetes
When your body is sensitive to insulin, your cells respond well to insulin and can use the sugar from your blood for energy. This helps keep your blood sugar levels stable and within a healthy range.
On the other hand, when you have insulin resistance or impaired insulin sensitivity, your cells stop responding well to insulin. Eventually, more glucose stays in your blood, causing high blood sugar levels and, ultimately, diabetes.
Insulin sensitivity plays a vital role in diabetes, especially in type 2 diabetes, a condition where the body still produces insulin but becomes resistant to it. As a result, the pancreas must produce more insulin to overcome the cells' resistance. But over time, it may not be able to keep up with that increased insulin demand, causing high blood sugar levels and, eventually, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes is a different condition where the body does not produce enough insulin or no insulin at all. People with type 1 diabetes rely on insulin injections to lower their blood sugar. While insulin resistance is not a typical feature of their condition, type 1 diabetics may also become insulin resistant.
What causes insulin resistance?
The exact causes of insulin resistance are still unclear, but several risk factors have been identified, including:
- Genetics: Some people may have a genetic predisposition to insulin resistance.
- Being overweight or obese: Being overweight or obese can lead to insulin resistance, especially if excess body fat is stored in the abdomen.
- Lack of physical activity: Exercise helps improve insulin sensitivity, so a sedentary lifestyle also increases the risk of insulin resistance.
- Unhealthy diet: Diets high in processed foods, sugary drinks, and saturated and trans fats are known to contribute significantly to insulin resistance.
- Chronic inflammation: Although less common, chronic inflammation can interfere with insulin sensitivity.
- Sleep problems: Lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep can also have a negative impact on how sensitive your body is to insulin.
- Medications: Certain medications, such as corticosteroids and antipsychotics, can cause insulin resistance.
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How to improve insulin sensitivity?
Improving insulin sensitivity is crucial to reduce the risks of developing type 2 diabetes or help manage the condition better and prevent diabetes-related complications, like heart disease, kidney disease, or peripheral neuropathy.
Fortunately, insulin sensitivity can be increased. Anti-diabetic medications used in patients with type 2 diabetes, like Metformin, Actos, or Avandia, help the cells respond better to insulin to lower blood sugar.
But simple lifestyle changes, like eating a healthy diet, staying active, and maintaining a healthy weight, can help too!
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10 Ways to Increase Insulin Sensitivity Naturally
Here’s what you can do to naturally increase your insulin sensitivity (or decrease your insulin resistance). Simple, easy steps and lifestyle changes that can really help:
1. Stay physically active!
Physical exercise is one of the most efficient ways to increase insulin sensitivity. When you exercise, your muscles need more energy, which means they need more glucose. There are several ways in which exercise improves insulin sensitivity, including:
- Increasing glucose uptake: Physical activity helps increase the muscles’ glucose uptake, improving insulin sensitivity and lowering blood sugar.
- Reducing inflammation: Exercising also helps reduce inflammation in the body, a factor that’s often associated with insulin resistance.
- Improving blood flow: When you exercise, you have better blood flow, which helps the muscles take up more glucose from the blood.
- Increasing muscle mass: People with higher muscle mass are more sensitive to insulin. That’s because by increasing muscle mass, you increase the amount of tissue available to take up glucose.
- Improving metabolic rate: Physical activity helps improve metabolic rate, which can, in turn, help increase the body's sensitivity to insulin.
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2. Maintain a healthy weight
It goes hand in hand with physical exercise, but maintaining a healthy weight can also have a big positive impact on your insulin sensitivity.
Excess body fat, particularly around the abdomen, has been shown to increase insulin resistance by interfering with the body's ability to use insulin and control blood sugar levels properly. In addition, obesity can cause chronic low-grade inflammation, which is another known contributing factor to insulin resistance.
Studies have shown that even modest weight loss of 5-10% of body weight can significantly increase insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
3. Reduce refined carbs
Diet plays a major role in insulin sensitivity, and refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice, pasta, or sugary drinks, are the main ingredients responsible for insulin resistance.
When you eat refined carbohydrates, your body quickly breaks them down into glucose and absorbs them in the bloodstream, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar levels. Over time, repeated blood sugar spikes can impair insulin sensitivity. In addition, refined carbohydrates are often low in fiber, which can further contribute to insulin resistance.
Low-glycemic index carbohydrates, like beans, whole grain bread, oats, and lentils, slow down the release of sugar into the blood, giving more time for insulin to work and reducing the risks of resistance..
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4. Eat more fiber
Eating fiber is another natural and easy way to increase insulin sensitivity. Foods that are high in fiber take longer to break down in the stomach, help slow down the absorption of glucose, and prevent blood sugar spikes that affect insulin sensitivity.
A study found that eating more soluble fiber, like legumes, oatmeal, flaxseeds, fruits, and vegetables, significantly lowers levels of insulin resistance.
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5. Sleep more!
As mentioned above, lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep can also impair your insulin sensitivity.
Studies have shown that even one single night of sleep deprivation can cause insulin resistance and higher blood sugar levels.
Besides, chronic sleep deprivation can also lead to higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, further interfering with the way the body responds to insulin.
Insufficient sleep is also known to increase hunger and cravings for high-calorie, high-sugar foods, further exacerbating weight gain and insulin resistance.
Therefore, ensuring you're getting enough sleep hours and good-quality sleep is essential to help increase your insulin sensitivity.
6. Manage stress levels
Managing stress is another way to increase your insulin sensitivity. When you’re stressed out, your body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which can raise blood sugar levels.
When the stress is chronic, the body must constantly release more insulin to counterbalance this abnormal blood sugar rise. Unfortunately, as a result, it often becomes more resistant to insulin over time.
Additionally, stress also increases the risks of overeating or unhealthy food choices, as well as poor sleep quality, which are all directly linked to lower insulin sensitivity.
Stress management techniques, like meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga, are a great addition to any healthy lifestyle.
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7. No added sugar!
Consuming high amounts of added sugar is directly linked to an increased risk of having diabetes and insulin resistance.
Similarly to refined carbohydrates, when you eat foods and beverages high in added sugars, your blood sugar levels can quickly spike, increasing insulin production to help transport glucose out of your bloodstream and into your cells. Over time, that can cause your body to become resistant to the effects of insulin.
In addition, added sugars are linked to weight gain and obesity, which are also risk factors for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men. But make sure to look for hidden sugars in processed foods and beverages.
8. Quite smoking
While the link is unclear, smoking has been proven to decrease insulin sensitivity and increase the risks of developing type 2 diabetes. In fact, smokers are 30% to 40% more likely to have diabetes, and the more cigarettes, the higher the risk.
Studies have also shown that smoking can impair glucose tolerance, which means the body has more difficulty regulating blood sugar levels. Nicotine, the addictive component of cigarettes, is believed to directly affect insulin signaling and reduce insulin sensitivity.
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9. Limit alcohol
Interestingly, alcohol consumption has mixed effects on insulin sensitivity. While moderate alcohol consumption can actually improve insulin sensitivity, heavy alcohol consumption is associated with increased insulin resistance.
Indeed, studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption (up to two drinks per day) can help prevent insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Scientists believe that it is because alcohol increases the production of adiponectin, a hormone that plays a role in regulating glucose and lipid metabolism.
However, heavy alcohol consumption (more than 3 drinks per day) increases insulin resistance and the risk of type 2 diabetes!
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10. Try natural remedies for insulin sensitivity
While lifestyle changes, such as physical exercise, a healthy diet, and good sleep quality, are the most effective ways to increase insulin sensitivity, many natural remedies like spices, herbs, or mineral supplements can also be helpful.
Here are a few remedies for insulin resistance that have been backed up by science:
- Apple cider vinegar
- Alpha-lipoic acid
- Green tea
- Omega-3 fatty acid
Before trying these natural herbs, spices, and supplements for insulin sensitivity, we recommend you speak to your healthcare provider for guidance about how to incorporate them safely into your diet, especially if you have chronic health conditions like diabetes.
The above 10 natural ways to improve insulin sensitivity are generally considered safe. However, they should never be used as a substitute for your medications.
Diabetes is a serious condition that can lead to severe health complications, including heart disease, kidney failure, or peripheral neuropathy. Therefore, make sure to ask for your doctor’s advice first.
Do you have any questions or comments about how to increase insulin sensitivity? Feel free to share your thoughts below!
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