You can’t turn on the radio or flick through a magazine without hearing someone talking about the rise in obesity and type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance is one of today’s hot topics and one of the biggest challenges to our health. It’s a key cause of diabetes, high blood fat levels, and hypertension.
The good thing is, there’s plenty we can do to help ourselves. Chronic disease doesn’t have to be our destiny. By making a few tweaks to our diets, exercise routines, and lifestyles, we can improve our insulin sensitivity and stay fit for anything. What’s more, some of the changes may even be fun. That said, here’s how to increase insulin sensitivity naturally.
1) Cut the carbs
Insulin is released when we eat carbohydrates. Refined sugar makes the insulin spike higher than complex carbs, but the truth is that reducing our carbohydrate intake overall will make us produce less insulin.
As insulin helps to store fat, less circulating insulin can prevent, reduce or reverse weight gain. Protein and fat are filling too, so people on low carb diets tend to be less hungry and naturally eat fewer calories. Put simply, low-carbing (1) works to help you lose weight and improve your insulin sensitivity.
So cut out all refined sugar and white carbs, even moderate amounts can reduce insulin sensitivity (2). Don’t push it too far though; get complex carbs from plenty of veggies and berries, nuts, and seeds. If you go into a state of ketosis, where your body adapts to burning fat instead of glucose as its fuel, your tissues may develop a degree of insulin resistance as a protective mechanism to save up any glucose for the brain (3).
2) Lift heavy or HIIT it
Exercising can increase your insulin sensitivity but you’ve got to do it right. Long hours pounding the pavements or the treadmill can actually increase the amount of cortisol you release and make you more resistant to insulin. Instead, lift weights or try high impact interval training (HIIT) to improve your metabolic profile and your body.
It’s all down to a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol has a vital physiological role as one of the body’s stress hormones, helping us run faster, and fight harder. However, it also decreases our sensitivity to insulin (4), particularly if levels are high for long periods. The time and intensity of exercise can affect the level of cortisol release. When it comes to exercise, more may not be better. Training for more than 60 minutes, even at a low intensity will burn up the body’s glycogen stores and stimulate cortisol release. A study (5) confirmed that long-term cortisol exposure was significantly higher in endurance athletes.
Short high-intensity exercise such as sprints, HIIT or weight training cause less of an increase in plasma cortisol concentrations. However, the levels tend to surge if rest periods are short and work levels are high. This is particularly significant if exercising when starved or nutritionally depleted. It is also increased by training in the early morning when cortisol levels are naturally higher (6) and the response to exercise can be more. So a hard 6am workout before breakfast may actually be counterproductive for improving insulin sensitivity.
3) Bump up the Omega 3
There is more and more evidence suggesting that dietary omega-3 may be one way in which we can improve insulin sensitivity and reduce the incidence of type 2 diabetes. Higher levels in the diet or measured in the bloodstream have been shown to make a real difference. Early studies have shown (7) that supplementing with omega 3 from fish oils can improve the use of glucose by the body and reduce insulin resistance (8).
So, pack your diet with plenty of fish, and particularly oily fish, to give your omega 3 a boost. Mackerel, sardines, salmon, tuna, and crab will all increase your levels whether they’re frozen, fresh, or from a tin. To get enough omega, you’ll need to eat fish or other seafood at least 1 to 2 times per week. Ideally though, eat seafood every day if you want to see a big difference in insulin sensitivity, particularly choosing the dark fattier meat that is richer in essential fatty acids. If seafood isn’t your thing, then take a supplement to get all the omega 3 you need, with no fishy flavour.
4) Spice up your life
This might sound surprising but if you want to know how to increase insulin sensitivity naturally, add a little flavour to the foods you eat. Research (9) shows that if your insulin resistance is high due to too many late nights and not enough sleep, then cinnamon can reverse that effect. Just don’t sprinkle it on a doughnut.
If you prefer something more savoury, try cooking with ginger, garlic, and turmeric (10, 11). You’ll knock up some killer curries and you can also help improve your glucose tolerance and sensitize your body to the actions of insulin, a definite win all around.
5) Catch some rays (a little known tip on how to increase insulin sensitivity naturally)
Our bodies can make vitamin D in sunlight and it’s often reinforced in our foods. Even so, working in offices, being tied to our screens and consoles, and lavish application of sunscreen have caused lots of us to lack Vitamin D.
Rickets may be rare but too little vitamin D can lead to other problems. Researchers have linked low vitamin D levels to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. So, give your levels a boost with a little sunshine, plenty of oily fish, dairy produce, and liver. It can be difficult to increase your vitamin D levels through diet alone, so consider a daily supplement too (12).
6) Get some love
Sounds too good to be true? Well, believe it, love could actually protect you from diabetes. The effect seems to be linked to oxytocin, the hormone that is linked to love and bonding. Oxytocin is released when a mother breastfeeds her baby, but our levels surge if we snuggle up to a loved one, bond with someone socially, or even pet our dogs. There’s a reason it’s known as the ‘cuddle hormone.’
If oxytocin is given to us, we tend to feel calmer, happier, and safer. But it can also have effects on our response to insulin. A study demonstrated that oxytocin acted to reverse insulin resistance and improve glucose tolerance in obese mice (13). Maybe love really is a drug.
7) Take Berberine
Berberine is found in several different plants, including European barberry, Oregon grape, goldenseal, goldthread, philodendron, and tree turmeric. Berberine can reduce glucose production in the liver. Research has shown that a 1500mg dose of berberine, taken as 500mg with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, is just as effective as taking 1500mg of metformin or 4mg glibenclamide (14, 15).
Any of the tips above on how to increase insulin sensitivity naturally can help you improve your health. Additionally, recent research also shows that inositol powder may be another supplement that may help reduce insulin resistance.