7 Ways to Improve Insulin Sensitivity

7 Ways to Improve Insulin Sensitivity

Insulin is a vital hormone produced by the beta cells in the pancreas that helps regulate blood glucose levels. When you eat carbohydrates, your level of sugar in your blood increases which triggers the release of insulin into your bloodstream. Think of insulin as a key which unlocks your body's cells so the glucose can enter and be used for energy.

High levels of sugar in the blood can be damaging to the body and can result in a host of health issues including nerve damage, heart disease, stroke, kidney damage and eye damage to name a few. It is therefore very important for the insulin your body produces to be efficient in utilising the glucose in your blood.

Insulin sensitivity refers to how sensitive the body is to insulin. High insulin sensitivity means the body requires less insulin to utilise blood glucose for energy which is good. Low insulin sensitivity is also called insulin resistance and this refers to the body becoming more resistant to the effects of insulin.

In an attempt to combat insulin resistance the pancreas initially produces more insulin so blood sugars levels can be controlled at a safe level. As the body's cells become more resistant to the effects of insulin though, the body is unable to produce enough additional insulin to compensate. Insulin resistance is the leading factor for type 2 diabetes.

It's clear then that we want our body to be sensitive to insulin, so what can we do about it? Here are seven ways to improve insulin sensitivity.

1. Exercise

Physical activity is one of the best ways to improve insulin sensitivity. When we eat food that is broken down into glucose, that glucose needs to be stored and insulin facilitates this. Glucose can be stored in the liver, muscles and fat cells. The liver and muscles only have limited storage however, so the excess is stored in the fat tissue.

When you exercise you use up this stored glucose. For example, when you perform a set of squats your muscles will use the glucose stored in them to provide the energy you need to perform the set. Once the glucose stored in the muscles runs out, the liver kicks in and releases its stored glucose to facilitate the energy you need. You now have extra storage space in the muscles and liver so the next time you eat, less insulin will be required to facilitate the storage of glucose in those areas.

Both aerobic exercise such as brisk walks or moderate paced cycles and anaerobic exercise such as intense weight lifting or HIIT are beneficial for improving insulin sensitivity. Resistance training has the added benefit of increasing the size of your muscles which enables increased facilitation of glucose to be stored in the muscles.

2. Sleep

It may sound counter-intuitive but getting adequate sleep is important in order to improve insulin sensitivity. Several studies have shown a direct link between sleep depravation and increased insulin resistance. One of the main reasons for this is the resulting hormone imbalances such as increased cortisol and fluctuations in ghrelin (a.k.a hunger hormone). This can result in increased hunger when your body doesn't require the excess food, leading to increased fat storage and decreased insulin sensitivity.

Linked to the importance of exercise in improving insulin sensitivity, quality sleep is a very important factor in the repair of your muscles after exercise. If inadequate rest means your muscles don't repair and grow, less glucose can be stored in the muscle cells.

3. Stress

When you're stressed your body produces a hormone called cortisol. As a fight or flight mechanism, cortisol prepares the body by increasing blood glucose for use as an energy source. At the same time it inhibits the production of insulin to prevent the blood glucose from being stored. This double whammy not only increases blood sugar levels but it also prevents insulin from being able to work effectively. If cortisol levels are regularly elevated the body becomes more insulin resistant.

There are many ways to reduce stress in your life such as regular exercise, ensuring a good sleep schedule and meditation. Limiting or removing the root causes of stress is the ideal solution wherever possible.

4. Weight Loss

Several studies have shown that losing excess fat is a great way to improve insulin sensitivity. Obese individuals may produce higher levels of hormones and other chemicals that can contribute to insulin resistance. Reducing this excess fat can make insulin work more efficiently in the body along with providing various other non-insulin related benefits.

Following a well balanced diet that suffices your body's maintenance requirements along with regular exercise can help reduce excess body fat and improve insulin sensitivity.

5. Reduce Sugar Intake

Every time we eat food that is broken down into sugars, the pancreas produces insulin to facilitate its storage. It's important to remember that sugars in the bloodstream aren't only a result of eating sugary foods like cake and sweets but carbohydrates such as potatoes, pasta and bread also break down into sugars.

The more carbs and sugars that we eat, the more insulin that is produced and the more glucose that is stored in our liver and muscles. This not only reduces our ability to use fat as a store of energy but also reduces the effectiveness of insulin to utilise that glucose. Instead, reducing carbohydrate and sugar intake will reduce insulin production, help maintain stable blood sugar levels and allow insulin to work more efficiently meaning that less of it is needed.

6. Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting involves restricting food intake for a limited period of time before eating once again. Various studies have shown the potential benefits of intermittent fasting when it comes to improving insulin sensitivity. Reducing insulin resistance through intermittent fasting may also reduce the risk of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes since the increased effectiveness of insulin to utilise glucose can help lower blood sugar levels.

There are various methods of intermittent fasting such as the popular 16/8 option, the 5:2 diet and alternate day fasting. Each variant will have pros and cons on an individual level so it's important to talk to your health professional before jumping on an intermittent fasting plan.

7. Smoking

Smoking is directly linked to reduced insulin sensitivity through resulting chemical imbalances in the body that can reduce the cells ability to respond to insulin. Smoking can also be indirectly linked to insulin resistance as a result of increased belly fat. Smoking can increase the risk for type 2 diabetes and for smokers with type 2 diabetes, larger does of insulin may be needed in order to control sugar levels within the body.

Overall, countering insulin resistance can result in decreased insulin production, lower blood sugar levels and a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and the associated health risks. It may be possible to improve insulin sensitivity naturally but be sure to consult your health professional before making any lifestyle changes.

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