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Seven Ways to Increase Your Insulin Sensitivity

Written by Dr Jane Gilbert
Reviewed by Kimberly Langdon

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, as 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.


Insulin sensitivityThe insulin receptor (violet) is a transmembrane protein, that is activated by insulin (light green).

  1. 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 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 (1), 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 (2) confirmed that long-term cortisol exposure was significantly higher in endurance athletes.

Short high intensity exercise such as sprints, HITT 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 and is also increased by training in the early morning when cortisol levels are naturally higher (3) and the response to exercise can be more. So a hard 6am workout before breakfast may actually be counterproductive for improving insulin sensitivity.

2. 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 (4) 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 (5). 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 (6).

fast food, low carb diet, fattening and unhealthy eating concept - close up of glazed donuts on wooden board behind no symbol or circle-backslash prohibition sign

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 tin. To get enough omega you’ll need to eat fish or other seafood at least one to two times per week and ideally every day if you want to see a big difference in insulin sensitivity, particularly choosing the dark fattier meat that is richer in the essential fatty acids. If seafood isn’t your thing, then take a supplement to get all the omega 3 you need, with no fishy flavor.


Small Fish With Ambitions Of A Big Shark - Business Concept

  1. Spice up your life

If you want to improve your insulin sensitivity add a little flavour to your foods. 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 donut.

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 round.

  1. 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 me 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 us, we tend to feel calmer, happier and safer. But it can also have effects on our response to insulin. A study demonstrated (12) that oxytocin acted to reverse insulin resistance and improve glucose tolerance in obese mice. Maybe love really is a drug.

  1. Catch some rays

Our body’s 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 slavish 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 (13).

vitamin d


7. Take Berberine

Berberine is a relatively new supplement on the market, and it has been called the ‘natural Metformin’. Berberine is found in several different plants, including European barberry, Oregon grape, goldenseal, goldthread, phellodendron, and tree turmeric. Berberine can reduce glucose production in the liver, and 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).

Berberine has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and immune-enhancing effects. It has also been shown to increase insulin sensitivity (16 – 20).


  1. The effects of cortisol on insulin sensitivity in muscle (Acta Physiologica)
  3. Elevated hair cortisol concentrations in endurance athletes (Psychoneuroendocrinology 2012 May;37(5):611-7) Skoluda N1, Dettenborn L, Stalder T, Kischbaum C.
  4. Cortisol and Growth Hormone Responses to Exercise at Different Times of Day (Journal of Clinical Metabolism and Endocrinology)

Jill A. Kanaley 2 , Judy Y. Weltman, Karen S. Pieper 3 , Arthur Weltman, and Mark L. Hartman

  1. A lower-carbohydrate, higher-fat diet reduces abdominal and intermuscular fat and increases insulin sensitivity in adults at risk of type 2 diabetes (J Nutr. 2015 Jan;145(1):177S-83S) Gower BA, Goss AM.
  2. Moderate amounts of fructose consumption impair insulin sensitivity in healthy young men: a randomized controlled trial (Diabetes Care. 2013 Jan; 36(1):150-6)

Aeberli I, Hochuli M, Gerber PA, Sze L, Murer SB, Tappy L, Spinas GA, Berneis

  1. A high-fat, ketogenic diet causes hepatic insulin resistance in mice, despite increasing energy expenditure and preventing weight gain (American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism Published 26 October 2010 Vol. 299 no. 5, E808-E815. François R. Jornayvaz, Michael J. Jurczak, Hui-Young Lee, Andreas L. Birkenfeld, David W. Frederick, Dongyang Zhang, Xian-Man Zhang, Varman T. Samuel, Gerald I. Shulman
  2. Phospholipids from herring roe improve plasma lipids and glucose tolerance in healthy, young adults. (Lipids Health Dis Lipids in Health and Disease, 82-82) Skoluda N1, Dettenborn L, Stalder T, Kirschbaum C.Bjørndal, B., Strand, E., Gjerde, J., Bohov, P., Svardal, A., Diehl, B., . . . Berge, R. (n.d.).
  3. A at nutritional doses restores insulin sensitivity in skeletal muscle by preventing lipotoxicity and inflammation (The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry)

Capel, F., Acquaviva, C., Pitois, E., Laillet, B., Rigaudière, J., Jouve, C., Morio, B. (n.d.). DH.

  1. Cassia cinnamon for the attenuation of glucose intolerance and insulin resistance resulting from sleep loss (J Med Food. 2009 Jun;12(3):467-72)

Jitomir J, Willoughby DS.

  1. Effects of ginger (Zingiber officinale) on plasma glucose level, HbA1c and insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetic patients (Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2013 Sep;64(6):682-6)

Mahluji, Attari VE, Mobasseri M, Payahoo L, Ostadrahimi A, Golzari SE.

  1. Anti-hyperglycemic and insulin sensitizer effects of turmeric and its principle constituent curcumin (Int J Endocrinol Metab. 2014 Oct 1;12) Ghorbani, Hekmatdoost, Mirmiran.
  2. Treatment of Obesity and Diabetes Using Oxytocin or Analogs in Patients and Mouse Models (PLoS One. 2013; 8(5): e61477) Hai Zhang, Chenguang Wu, Qiaofen Chen,2 Xiaoluo Chen, Zhigang Xu, Jing Wu, and Dongsheng
  3. The effect of vitamin D on insulin resistance in patients with type 2 diabetes (Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome20135:8) Afsaneh Talaei, Mahnaz Mohamadi and Zahra Adgi
  4. Berberine in the treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systemic review and meta-analysis. Dong H, Wang N, Zhao L, Lu F. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:591654. doi: 10.1155/2012/591654. Epub 2012 Oct 15.
  5. Berberine for diabetes mellitus type 2. Steriti R. Natural Medicine Journal 2010 October;2(10):5-6
  6. Berberine inhibits PTP1B activity and mimics insulin action. Chen C, Zhang Y, Huang C.  Biochem Biophys Res Commun Jul 2 2010;397(3):543-7

17.Berberine and its more biologically available derivative, dihydroberberine, inhibit mitochondrial respiratory complex I: a mechanism for the action of berberine to activate AMP-activated protein kinase and improve insulin action. Turner N, Li JY, Gosby A, et al. Diabetes May 2008;57(5):1414-8.

  1. Berberine, a natural plant product, activates AMP-activated protein kinase with beneficial metabolic effects in diabetic and insulin-resistant states. Lee YS, Kim WS, Kim KH, et al.  Diabetes Aug 2006;55(8):2256-64.

19.Berberine-induced activation of 5’-adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase and glucose transport in rat skeletal muscles. Ma X, Egawa T, Kimura H, et al.  Metabolism 2010 Nov;59(11):1619-27.

20.AMP-activated protein kinase: a potential target for the diseases prevention by natural occurring polyphenols. Hwang JT, Kwon DY, Yoon SH.  N Biotechnol Oct 1 2009;26(1-2):17-22.