Everything You Need to Know About Insulin Sensitivity
By Dr. Chad Walding, DPT
October 7th, 2019
If you’re looking for a way to get healthier and live longer, put insulin sensitivity at the top of your list for things to get to work on. You’ve probably heard about the health consequences of insulin resistance. From diabetes to an increased risk of heart disease, it’s no wonder insulin resistance receives a lot of attention. But what about the opposite side of the spectrum – insulin sensitivity?
Insulin sensitivity is a key player in the prevention of chronic illness, although it’s often overlooked and unacknowledged. The sooner you take action to control your insulin sensitivity now, the less risk you have for developing a multitude of diseases later in your life.
Luckily for you, there are lots of easy, natural ways to increase your insulin sensitivity to help you prevent and fight disease. But first, let's dive into an explanation of insulin, as well as the differences between insulin sensitivity and insulin resistance.
What is Insulin?
Your pancreas is responsible for producing the hormone insulin. It’s secreted when your blood sugar increases, likely after a meal, to bring the sugar from your bloodstream into the tissues in your body. This sugar is then used at a later time either as energy or it turns into fat.1
Insulin is vital to keeping your blood sugar in check. Too much insulin results in low blood sugar and too little insulin results in a blood sugar level that’s too high. Both have serious health consequences, especially sustained, elevated blood sugar which can lead to type 2 diabetes. Your body desires to have tightly controlled insulin production to keep a consistent blood sugar level.
What is Insulin Sensitivity?
Insulin sensitivity is how sensitive your body reacts to insulin and is the complete opposite of insulin resistance. You want to be more insulin sensitive and less insulin resistant. If you have an increased sensitivity to insulin, your body uses less insulin to lower your blood sugar level than someone who has a decreased sensitivity to insulin.
A popular analogy for this scenario is the lock and key analogy. Glucose (sugar) wants to open the locked door to your fat and muscle cells. The key that glucose needs is insulin. So if you have the key (insulin) but the key can’t turn, the glucose still can’t get inside. This causes insulin resistance. So here you have lots of keys (insulin) ready to be used, but when the key isn’t opening the door, you have extra glucose floating around that can’t get inside. This causes elevated blood sugar leading to insulin resistance – there’s plenty of insulin ready to be used, but it’s not working very well.
When the key (insulin) and the keyhole are working in unison, the key is inserted and easily opens the door to allow glucose into your muscle and fat cells, which lowers the amount of glucose in your blood – this is what’s happening in insulin sensitivity.
This is important because when your body uses more insulin, a cascade of health problems like type 2 diabetes, liver damage, and heart disease are the result.2 For this reason, I suggest doing what you can to increase your insulin sensitivity so you can avoid the chronic diseases associated with decreased insulin sensitivity, otherwise known as insulin resistance.
Benefits of Insulin Sensitivity
There are numerous benefits of insulin sensitivity that you can experience after working to increase your sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity can help you:
- Reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases
- Lose weight
- Reduce the amount of insulin you use if you are a type 2 diabetic, possibly even come off insulin altogether
- Increase energy
- Keep ‘with it’ as you age as the risk of cognitive decline is lower
- Improve your health overall
Insulin Sensitivity vs Insulin Resistance
Now that you know a bit about what insulin sensitivity is, let’s chat about insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when your pancreas increases its production of insulin because your body’s cells cannot use the sugar in your blood for energy and don’t respond properly to insulin. When your blood sugar levels are chronically high because of insulin resistance, your body tries to produce more insulin to combat these high sugars. Over a period of time, your blood sugar levels stay elevated.
Some health conditions that can result from insulin resistance include3:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart attack
- Alzheimer's disease
- Kidney disease
- Eye problems
These disease processes occur because of the high blood sugar levels associated with insulin resistance damage your nerves and blood vessels. When these important and delicate structures are damaged, your body cannot function properly. The longer you live with insulin resistance, the more likely you are to develop one of these health conditions.
Symptoms of Insulin Resistance
Most people find out they’re insulin resistance after a blood test at their doctor’s office. That’s because it’s difficult to notice the beginning symptoms as they usually come on slowly. The health conditions that result from insulin resistance also can be overlooked when you just don’t know you are developing insulin resistance. This is why it’s so important to keep your yearly physical exams with your health practitioner to have a full healthcare assessment.
Some symptoms of insulin resistance include3:
- Elevated blood glucose levels
- Elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- A waist circumference of greater than 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men
- Skin tags
- A skin condition developing called acanthosis nigricans
- Characterized by light brown to black markings that are velvety to the touch and can be found on the groin, armpits, neck, and under the breasts
Causes and risk factors of developing insulin resistance include3:
- Diet high in carbohydrates
- Gestational diabetes
- Chronic inflammation
- Chronic stress
- Family history of diabetes
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Being older than 45 years of age
- Diagnosis of fatty liver disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome, or sleep apnea
- Certain medications
- Steroids, HIV medications, and antipsychotics
- African, Latino, or Native American descent
Insulin Sensitivity Test
While there isn’t one definitive test to determine your level of insulin sensitivity, there are a few tests that can help you gauge how sensitive your body is to insulin. Some of these tests include4:
- Glucose level – A blood test to determine the amount of sugar in your blood
- Hemoglobin A1c – A blood test to show your average blood sugar levels over the last three months
- Lipid tests – Blood tests to determine your body’s various cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- Homeostatic Model Assessment – This is a calculation to determine how well the beta cells in your pancreas are working to produce insulin and determine insulin sensitivity.
- Fasting insulin – A blood test to determine fasting insulin levels.
- Inflammation markers – Blood tests to see the degree of inflammation within your body.
- Insulin tolerance test and quantitative insulin sensitivity check index – Both help determine your level of insulin sensitivity.
How To Increase Insulin Sensitivity Naturally
Now, you may be wondering how you’re going to go about increasing your insulin sensitivity if it’s so important. Well, it really isn’t too hard. With a bit of discipline and determination, you too can experience for yourself the gifts of health and longevity. Let’s look at the many ways you can increase your insulin sensitivity on a daily basis.
Diet and Insulin Sensitivity
There are many ways you can alter what you eat in order to increase your sensitivity to insulin. Diet may be one of the most important, if not the most important way you can increase your insulin sensitivity. That’s because when you eat fewer carbohydrates, you decrease the amount of insulin your body makes. But that’s not all. There quite a few things you can do to change your diet and work on your increasing your sensitivity to insulin.
Some of the foods to avoid in order to increase your insulin sensitivity include:5
- Processed foods
- Soda and other artificial beverages
- Large, calorie-dense meals
Some foods to reduce in your diet in order to increase your insulin sensitivity include:5
- Your carbohydrate and sugar intake – Both known to spike blood sugar levels
- Caffeine – It actually lowers your insulin sensitivity – the opposite of what we want6
- Simple carbohydrates – These also spike blood sugar level and include things like white bread, white flour, and pasta
Some of the ways you can change your diet to increase your insulin sensitivity include:5
- Increasing the number of fruits and vegetables you eat since they’re loaded with minerals, vitamins, and fiber.
- Aiming for at least 50 grams of soluble fiber per day. Fiber is a carbohydrate, but it doesn’t spike your blood sugar like regular carbohydrates because your body can’t fully break it down. As a result, this helps fiber to bring your blood sugar down after a meal.
- Trying intermittent fasting which is when you cycle between periods of eating and fasting for specific lengths of time – it’s proven to increase insulin sensitivity.7
- Increasing the number of unsaturated fats in your diet while decreasing the number of carbohydrates.
- Being sure you’re eating healthy fats and protein from quality sources.
Exercise and Insulin Sensitivity
Exercise is not only considered important for increasing insulin sensitivity and preventing insulin resistance, but it’s also crucially important for your overall health.8 Consistent, regular exercise is proven to increase weight loss, improve cardiovascular health, and decrease insulin resistance. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, five days per week, to reap the full benefits.
Some examples of activities you can do for 30 minutes of moderate exercise include:
- Brisk walking
- Water aerobics
Also, check out the movement section of our site for strengthening, activation, stability, and stretching exercises. These can help you get the start you need while beginning your fitness journey.
Supplements and Insulin Sensitivity
There are a few supplements that work to increase your sensitivity to insulin, especially when combined with diet and exercise. Some of these supplements include:
- Probiotic – The microbiota in your gut are directly linked to how your body responds to insulin. A probiotic helps to increase the number and type of ‘good’ bacteria in your gut, increasing your insulin sensitivity.9 Our NativePath Probiotic has 42.5 billion culture forming units of beneficial gut bacteria to help heal and improve your digestive health.
- Omega-3 – Increases your level of adiponectin which is a hormone linked to insulin sensitivity.10 My favorite source of omega-3 fatty acids is NativePath Antarctic Krill Oil. It’s an excellent source of omega-3, plus it’s easily absorbed by your body and is one of the purest sources of omega-3s available.
- Cinnamon – Proven to reduce fasting and post-meal blood sugar levels.11 It’s also delicious and can be sprinkled in your tea or over some fresh berries.
- Turmeric – Improves your insulin resistance.12 Try NativePath Turmeric for a boost of this natural free-radical fighter and anti-inflammatory. You can also add turmeric to rice, eggs, or soups.
- Magnesium – Magnesium is crucial for many of the functions inside of your body. It also improves insulin resistance, even in people without diabetes.13 Magnesium is naturally found in foods such as spinach, almonds, whole grains, and beans.
- Resveratrol – Improves glucose control and insulin sensitivity.14 Natural sources of resveratrol are found in raspberries, blueberries, peanuts, and the skin of grapes.
Stress and Insulin Sensitivity
It’s hard to avoid or eliminate stress. But working towards finding healthy outlets for your stress is really worth your time. That’s because stress hormones lead to increased blood sugar and a breakdown of nutrients. The stress hormone cortisol is actually proven to cause insulin resistance.15 All in all, do your best to not bottle up your stress so much so that it consumes you. Instead, try working through the emotion with exercise, yoga, talking to a friend, or journaling.
Sleep and Insulin Sensitivity
We’re all aware of the crucial role sleep plays in your ability to function well and to feel good. But lack of sleep also affects your body down to a cellular level. Just one night of sleep deprivation creates insulin resistance and decreases your insulin sensitivity.16 One night – yikes! Try to do what you can to ensure you get close to eight hours of restful sleep every night.
Weight Loss and Insulin Sensitivity
If you’d like to lose a few pounds, weight loss can help you in more ways than just generally feeling better. You’ll also increase your sensitivity and decrease your risk of a multitude of diseases, particularly type 2 diabetes.
One study found that visceral fat (the fat around your internal organs) is a bigger risk factor in your risk of becoming insulin resistant and becoming a type 2 diabetic than subcutaneous fat (the fat under your skin). This extra fat causes inflammation and impaired insulin signaling, both of which impair the actions of insulin.17 This is why it's imperative to reduce your overall body fat through diet and exercise to reap the benefits of increased insulin sensitivity.
Smoking and Insulin Sensitivity
In our current times, it’s no secret just how damaging smoking is to your health. From an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and cancer, to name a few, no wonder more people are either not smoking in the first place or trying to quit.
Smoking also induces insulin resistance, as well as impairs the action of insulin. But here’s where it gets really interesting. Surprisingly, in the first two years after quitting smoking, you’re actually at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but that risks declines as the years go on. This is likely due to weight gain from nicotine withdrawal, which causes increased appetite and food intake.18 So it’s very important you have a plan in place for after you quit smoking to decrease the risk of overeating, in addition to avoiding unhealthy, processed foods.
Green Tea and Insulin Sensitivity
Green tea is proven to improve insulin sensitivity, decrease insulin levels, and even prevent obesity.19 In addition, green tea is chock full of powerful antioxidants to help protect you from the damaging effects of free radicals. You can experience the many healing benefits of green tea by drinking it in its liquid form or taking it in a capsule form called green tea extract.
Apple Cider Vinegar and Insulin Sensitivity
Drinking two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar before a meal is a great way to help control your blood sugar post-meal. Researchers studied this by having one group of participants first drink the two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, then consume a meal high in carbohydrates. The result was that this group of people had a greater feeling of fullness and a lower insulin level when compared to the control group. Therefore, consuming vinegar before a high-carbohydrate meal may help prevent the blood sugar spike that typically follows.20
Making Lifestyle Shifts Towards A Healthier You
Learning how to make major lifestyle shifts is key to increasing your insulin resistance and being able to enjoy a healthier life overall. We know it can be overwhelming when it comes to considering revamping your lifestyle. This is because your diet, exercise, and outlook needs to make a long-lasting shift in order to stick with your goal for a healthier, happier you.
This is exactly why the NativeBody Reset was created. With the NativeBody Reset, there’s no guesswork on your end. You’ll get customized meal plans, exercise plans, recipes, shopping lists, a reset manual, and access to a private community of coaches and like-minded people. No stone was left unturned when we created this program. It’s comprehensive and delivers real, long-lasting results.
There’s even a NativeBody Type Quiz to help you find the best and worst foods for your unique NativeBody type. From there, you’ll have access to a video presentation on your specific body type and be able to download a food list immediately. We find this helps our clients save time and stay focused.