Despite rapidly increasing obesity and diabetes rates, very few people know what insulin resistance is or how to avoid it.
This is a dangerous problem because as your cells become more resistant to insulin, your body becomes more likely to store fat.
Inflammation develops and cells and blood vessels are damaged. Diabetes risk skyrockets as does the likelihood that you’ll develop some other serious disease: Cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and PCOS are all associated with insulin resistance.
Other negative health effects linked to poor insulin health include the following:
This article will help you understand what insulin resistance is and map out a plan to solve it.
What Is Insulin?
Insulin is a hormone released by the pancreas in response to a rise in blood sugar. Its main role is to regulate the amount of nutrients circulating in the bloodstream. When you eat a meal, the amount of sugar (glucose) in your blood stream increases. Insulin binds with your cells in order to store the glucose either in muscle as glycogen (the energy source for the muscle) or as fat.
The body will replenish glycogen first, only storing excess glucose as fat if glycogen stores are topped off. This is one reason that exercise is the holy grail, both for improving insulin sensitivity and for losing body fat.
What Is Insulin Resistance?
Sometimes the cells become resistant to insulin, which means they aren’t readily binding to it. When this happens, the body will pump out more insulin to bring blood sugar levels down. This is an essential physiological effect because very high amounts of sugar in the blood can have harmful effects, causing damage to organs, inducing a coma, or potentially leading to death if untreated.
When you have high blood sugar, the pancreas may not be able to keep up anymore. The cells in the pancreas can become damaged. This leads to decreased insulin production. When you have low amounts of insulin and cells that don’t respond to the little insulin that's available, you will have sky high blood sugar levels, which cause a host of acute and long-term health problems including diabetes.
Which Cells Does Insulin Resistance Affect?
Insulin resistance occurs primarily in muscle and fat tissue. Once muscle becomes resistant to insulin, you lose the ability to stimulate glucose uptake, which lowers your exercise tolerance and has drastic effects on athletic performance. It also makes it harder to build muscle and recover from hard training.
In fat tissue, insulin no longer inhibits free fatty acid release, which might seem like a good thing, but is not because it means you will have fat circulating in your blood that has nowhere to go. Instead of being burned for energy, in an insulin resistant state, the free fatty acids in the blood cause inflammation in tissues (muscle, liver, endothelial cells), increasing risk of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
The liver and kidney, on the other hand, retain their sensitivity to insulin sensitivity, which results in the liver releasing another form of fat, called triglycerides, into the bloodstream. High triglycerides are a major predictor of heart disease, diabetes, and fatty liver disease.
Meanwhile the kidney responds to high insulin levels by retaining sodium and decreasing uric acid secretion (a waste product that leads to gout when levels are elevated). This combination increases blood pressure and damages blood vessels.
How Does Insulin Resistance Occur?
The cause of insulin resistance is not completely understood, however, scientists have identified a few causes:
#1: Eating excess calories. Insulin resistance may actually be a protective mechanism for fat cells that have grown too large so that no more fat will be deposited into them.
#2: A sedentary lifestyle. There’s a laundry list of biochemical effects that occur when we are inactive: In as little as 20 minutes of sitting gene signaling drops, blunting physiological processes like tissue repair that require energy. Inflammatory markers increase and fat accumulates in the blood, while glucose uptake slows.
#3: Having abdominal obesity. Belly fat is the dangerous kind of fat that surrounds the organs and releases chemical signals that keep insulin from effectively binding with cells.
#4: Inflammation. Energy excess (eating too many calories on a regular basis) is thought to cause insulin resistance in part by activating inflammatory pathways in the body that inhibit insulin signaling, making cells less sensitive to bind with insulin.
#5: Harmful gut bacteria. The bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract feed off what you eat. Unfortunately, certain strains of bacteria can increase the absorption of calories from the food you eat, increasing your energy intake. These bacteria also activate inflammatory pathways, contributing to insulin resistance and metabolic problems.
There are many other factors that can contribute to insulin resistance including genetics, smoking, stress, age, chemical toxin exposure, medication use, and low birth weight.
So, now we have some clues about what causes insulin resistance, let’s look at what you can do to solve it. Many practitioners in mainstream health care just accept insulin resistance as a fact of life, but this is a terrible mistake. With the following lifestyle and dietary habits, it’s completely possible to reverse insulin resistance and achieve peak metabolic health.
Tip #1: Perform A Strength Training Program
There’s no lack of evidence that exercise improves insulin health. You’ll get the greatest impact from lifting moderately heavy weights (65 to 85 percent of maximal for 8 to 15 reps). This type of training increases muscle mass, which means more insulin receptors and a greater storage tank for carbs.
Tip #2: Avoid Sitting For Long Periods
Sitting for long periods reduces insulin sensitivity even if you work out frequently and do everything else on this list right. For example, just 3 days of physical inactivity in young, active people caused insulin sensitivity to plummet and the participants gained belly fat. You don’t have to run around the block. Just get up and walk around a bit every 30 to 60 minutes.
Tip #3: Do Conditioning
Both sprints and endurance training will improve insulin sensitivity, but only in trained muscle. So, if you’re running or doing bike sprints, you’ll be fairly insulin sensitive in leg musculature, but less so in the upper body. That’s why it’s important to start with total body strength training and use conditioning to give you that extra edge.
Tip #4: Go High In Protein
Research consistently shows that higher protein, lower carb diets improve insulin sensitivity because they produce a more moderate increase in blood glucose. This reduces carb cravings and allows you to stay steadier and on an even keel with your eating instead of bingeing on carbs due to blood sugar spikes and valleys.
Tip #5: Optimize Carb Intake
If you’re sedentary and overweight, you probably have a high degree of insulin resistance. Optimal carb intake will likely be in the low range—around 50 grams a day. For others who exercise regularly, 100 to 200 grams of carbs a day is probably ideal until you reach a healthy body fat percentage.
Tip #6: Avoid Refined Carbs & Added Sugar
Sugar and refined carbs have one thing in common: They both spike blood glucose, which results in too much insulin being released. Then, once the insulin mops up all the glucose, you crave more sugar or carbs. Over time, the cells don’t respond to insulin as well and resistance sets in.
#7: Eat More Vegetables
The number one thing lacking in most people’s diets are vegetables: We’re talking leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, cauliflower, eggplant, and so on—not French fries or tomato sauce! It’s not just that veggies are low in calories. Rather, they contain fiber and antioxidants that slow the blood sugar response and automatically make your cells more sensitive to insulin.
#8: Get Enough Magnesium
Magnesium is the mineral of insulin sensitivity because it exerts positive effects on the insulin receptors in each cell of the body. In one trial of overweight people, taking 365 mg of magnesium for 6 months significantly improved insulin sensitivity, glucose tolerance, and blood pressure by the end of the study.
#9: Get Enough Sleep
Following just one night of poor sleep, insulin sensitivity is reduced because the stress hormone cortisol is elevated. This causes us to crave higher carb foods, but when we eat them, we often feel worse afterward because glucose tolerance is reduced. Anytime you can’t get enough sleep, be especially cautious with food choices and do everything you can to improve insulin sensitivity.
#10: Avoid Eating Late At Night
The foods people eat late tend to be higher carb foods, elevating insulin, which ends up throwing off our circadian rhythms. High insulin inhibits good sleep because melatonin, the sleep hormone, is only released after insulin falls. Short-term, you get one restless night, but long-term late night eating can completely jack up hormone balance.