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Insulin Sensitivity: The Secret to Optimal Health


Insulin sensitivity refers to how effectively your body responds to the hormone insulin. You may only think of people with diabetes as having issues with insulin sensitivity, but that’s just not true.

One in three Americans suffer from insulin resistance — a silent blood sugar disorder that can lead to type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and other metabolic diseases[*][*].

While some people may be born with lower insulin sensitivity levels, there are several lifestyle changes you can make to improve it.

The more insulin sensitive your body is, the more effective it is in utilizing carbohydrates for energy and the easier it becomes for your body to lose weight[*].

Read on for practical ways to make your body more insulin sensitive and prevent insulin resistance-related diseases.

What Is Insulin?

Insulin is a crucial hormone secreted by your pancreas. This hormone’s job is to manage the nutrients you absorb from food. It’s known for its role in controlling blood sugar and carbohydrate consumption[*].

Here’s how it works.

When you eat carbs, your blood sugar increases. This is acknowledged by the cells in your pancreas, which then releases insulin into your blood[*].

Once insulin is traveling through your bloodstream, it helps usher the glucose into your cells to make energy.

The purpose of this cycle is to reduce the amount of sugar in your blood and place it where it’s supposed to — into your cells for energy.

This is crucial because abnormally high amounts of sugar in your blood can have harmful effects on your health.

What is Insulin Sensitivity?

How effectively your body can use carbohydrates is linked to your insulin sensitivity, (i.e., how much insulin needs to be produced and released by the insulin receptors in your body in order to deal with certain amounts of glucose[*].

You are considered insulin sensitive if your body only needs to secrete a small amount of insulin to deposit glucose (sugar) into the cells.

Even though being insulin sensitive is considered a good thing, there are some cases where you can be too sensitive. When this happens, it’s tough to replenish glycogen stores in your muscles, which can cause fatigue and can make it hard for you to keep any weight on.

So, like all things, there is a happy medium.

Insulin Sensitivity and Weight Loss

There are a number of reasons why you might be putting on weight. But insulin resistance is one that was overlooked by physicians for a long time.

And it’s a condition that definitely will not be helped with a low-fat, high-carb diet — a prescription that many doctors still recommend today.

There’s a huge correlation between increased insulin sensitivity and lower body fat percentage. The more insulin sensitive you are, the more carbohydrates your body can digest and convert into energy rather than store them as fat, which may prevent weight gain[*].

Studies have shown that the more overweight you are, and the larger the amount of adipose tissue around your midsection, the higher your chances are of being insulin resistant[*].

Insulin and Diabetes

Many factors can cause your body to stop responding to insulin properly. This is called insulin resistance and it all starts with chronically high blood sugar.

When you have chronically high blood sugar, your body responds by pumping out more and more insulin in an attempt to decrease blood sugar levels. This causes high insulin levels otherwise known as “hyperinsulinemia”.

Hyperinsulinemia is linked to blood vessel damage, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and heart disease[*].

If left untreated, this cycle of high blood sugar and high insulin can continue for a long time, to the point where your body stops responding to insulin’s push to get more glucose inside your cells.

While your cells are becoming resistant to insulin, your pancreas also can’t keep up with insulin overproduction, and its cells will start to deteriorate. As a result of this, insulin production will start decreasing, thus leaving your body exposed to high levels of blood sugar, a condition known as hyperglycemia.

Abnormally high levels of blood sugar lead to type 2 diabetes, of which insulin resistance is then the root cause[*].

It’s estimated that 80% of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or have a higher BMI (body mass index)[*].

And while the cause of insulin resistance is not yet fully understood, researchers have found strong evidence linking excess fat around your organs (visceral fat) and decreased insulin sensitivity[*].

Different Types of Insulin Sensitivity

There are three different kinds of insulin sensitivity — peripheral, hepatic, and pancreatic[*].

  • Peripheral insulin sensitivity: This depends on how responsive your muscles and fat cells are at absorbing glucose, either by themselves or when stimulated by insulin. Peripheral is the most common form of insulin resistance.
  • Hepatic insulin sensitivity: This is linked to the process of gluconeogenesis (the production of new blood sugar).
  • Pancreatic insulin sensitivity: This relates to the optimal functioning of the cells which produce insulin (beta-cells). If beta-cells aren’t working properly, insulin resistance may develop.

Causes of Sensitivity

There are two types of risk factors that affect your insulin sensitivity and influence your chances of becoming insulin sensitive, insulin resistant, or even develop the risk of type 2 diabetes.

  • Non-modifiable factors, meaning they cannot be changed. For example, insulin sensitivity worsens with age. Other non-modifiable factors include genetics, family history of diabetes, and your ethnicity.
  • Modifiable factors, meaning you can take measures to increase insulin sensitivity. These include losing weight, reducing stress, eating fewer carbohydrates, and sleeping more.

How to Know If You Are Insulin Sensitive

The quickest and safest way to find out if you are insulin sensitive is getting tested by your doctor.

Some experts claim that if you have an apple-shaped body or if you get tired after eating carbohydrates, then there’s a chance you might be insulin resistant. However, this isn’t the most accurate way to determine your insulin sensitivity.

There is a test called HOMA-IR that makes an accurate guess of your body’s insulin resistance from your blood sugar and insulin levels.

You can also measure blood sugar directly through an oral glucose tolerance test, which is normally carried out by your nurse or doctor. In this type of test, a blood sample is taken to test your starting blood sugar level, followed by a second one after you’ve ingested a mixture of glucose dissolved into water. The two samples are then compared to assess your sensitivity to insulin.

8 Ways to Improve Insulin Sensitivity

Luckily, insulin sensitivity isn’t a fixed mechanism in the body. It can be drastically improved and increased by changing your lifestyle.

Here are 8 ways to help improve your insulin sensitivity.

8 ways to improve insulin sensitivity

#1: Using the Ketogenic Diet

If sugar worsens insulin resistance, following a ketogenic diet may help drastically by eliminating carbs altogether.

All carbohydrates trigger insulin, which means reducing carb intake down to less than 50 grams a day might help lower your body’s insulin levels[*].

In one study performed on 10 obese people with type 2 diabetes, they consumed their regular diet for one week and then switched onto a low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet for two weeks.

The results included a 30% decrease in overall caloric intake and a drastic 75% increase in insulin sensitivity[*].

Another study placed 146 overweight man and women on two separate diets: a low-fat diet and a ketogenic diet. The course of the trial spanned over 48 weeks and the results favored the low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet greatly[*].

Insulin levels in the ketogenic diet group decreased three times more than the low-fat group[*].

Diets that restrict carbohydrates can have powerful benefits in improving insulin sensitivity. But it’s important to not change back and forth between a high-carb diet and a ketogenic diet. Doing so can confuse your body on what type of energy to use (fats or carbs), and may induce insulin resistance to spare blood sugar for the brain[*].

While the ketogenic diet was initially used for the treatment of epilepsy in children, an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence now proves its efficacy in improving insulin sensitivity and weight loss[*].

#2: Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise

Maintaining a regular exercise training schedule is one of the best ways to begin improving your body’s insulin sensitivity. It helps by storing sugar directly into the muscles and also provides an almost immediate improvement in insulin sensitivity[*].

Aerobic exercise involves any form of physical activity that requires you to exercise for a prolonged period of time. This includes jogging, swimming, or anything where you’re moving your body at a steady pace for 30 minutes or longer.

Aerobic activity has the ability to increase insulin sensitivity for up to 72 hours after the exercise session. Conversely, being sedentary or purposely restricting any aerobic activity can decrease your body’s insulin sensitivity[*].

A 2016 study, published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), also concluded that short-term aerobic exercise improves whole-body insulin sensitivity in people suffering from obesity and type 2 diabetes[*].

Anaerobic exercise is also important and should be incorporated into your exercise regimen. Resistance training exercises like lifting weights, sprinting, and intense rowing/cycling can drastically improve your insulin sensitivity[*].

The more muscle mass you have, the more your body needs sugar. By including both steady-state cardio activity and weight training, you will enable your body to utilize carbohydrates more efficiently while helping to keep cardiovascular diseases at bay[*].

#3: Get More Sleep

Sleep is crucial for proper hormonal function.

Researchers have discovered that just one night of sleep deprivation can decrease insulin sensitivity by up to 33%[*].

When you lack sleep, your body’s hunger hormone (ghrelin) begins to fluctuate, your stress hormone (cortisol) elevates, and glucose tolerance lowers. This means losing sleep will leave you feeling hungry when your body doesn’t need food, which can worsen your insulin sensitivity and contribute to weight gain[*].

A study was conducted on nine healthy people to compare the effects of a normal amount of sleep (eight hours) and a short night of four hours of sleep. The results proved that just one night of sleep deprivation decreased insulin sensitivity in several metabolic pathways[*].

#4: Reduce Stress

Cortisol is one of the hormones released when your body goes through any physical, mental or environmental stress.

When cortisol is released, all of your non-essential bodily functions are put on hold in order to prioritize the stressful situation. Your body needs all the energy readily available in the form of sugar, therefore restricting glucose transport to the cells.

Once the body has taken care of the stress-inducing situation, insulin will stabilize blood glucose levels.

The problem is the constant reactivation of this cycle. Constantly producing excess cortisol weakens the cells’ sensitivity to insulin.

One of the harmful side effects of a stressful lifestyle is higher levels of blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association, when you combine high-blood pressure with high fasting glucose levels and abdominal obesity, you can quickly develop something called metabolic syndrome. This cluster of symptoms may increase your chances of stroke and developing diabetes. So you can see how a combination of unbalanced blood pressure levels and insulin resistance can become a big problem[*].

To reduce stress in your life, you can[*]:

  • Meditate
  • Quit smoking
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a good sleep schedule
  • Use herbs like rhodiola and ashwagandha
  • Supplement with magnesium, vitamin C, E, B, and D

#5: Lose Excess Weight

High body fat and insulin resistance typically go hand in hand. Many doctors believe that being overweight is one of the main causes of insulin resistance.

Studies have shown that having high amounts of fat, especially around your belly, can produce harmful chemicals and hormones responsible for decreased insulin sensitivity[*].

Another body of research has found that obsese people who lost just five percent of their body weight immediately improved insulin sensitivity and metabolic function[*].

The Diabetes Prevention Program recommends focusing on long-term weight loss and lifestyle adjustments. Following a diet that includes nutrient-dense whole-foods and exercising at least twice a week is a great way to begin losing weight and improving your body’s insulin sensitivity[*].

#6: Consume More Fiber

There are two kinds of fiber — insoluble and soluble.

Soluble fibers slow down the movement of food through the small intestines, helping reduce the amount of sugar that enters your blood. Soluble fiber is known for reducing appetite and lowering cholesterol[*].

Insoluble fiber instead is not absorbed by your digestive tract, but it reduces the travel time of food in your large intestine. It basically helps your body move stool through the bowels.

Many studies have discovered soluble fiber to have a positive effect on improving insulin sensitivity[*][*][*].

Incorporating foods high in soluble fiber such as vegetables, legumes, or even supplementing with psyllium husk capsules may benefit your body’s insulin sensitivity while delivering all other fiber health benefits, such as lower cholesterol levels and better immune function[*].

#7: Reduce Sugar Intake

While natural sugars from fruits and vegetables may not be the root cause of developing insulin resistance, added sugars can have a serious effect.

There are two main types of added sugar — fructose and sucrose.

Several studies have shown that high amounts of fructose can worsen insulin sensitivity, especially in diabetics[*][*].

In one study, overweight subjects were administered 25% of their daily caloric intake with fructose for eight weeks, while another group of people was given glucose. The results showed that while the fructose group developed pre-diabetes after only eight weeks, the glucose group remained unaffected[*].

The negative effects of sugars are well known: they’re not just empty calories, they also negatively stimulate both insulin and insulin resistance.

Cutting out sugars in your diet will help your body regulate the insulin cycle and may help to prevent pre-diabetic conditions.

#8: Experiment With Supplements

There are four natural supplements with proven efficacy: resveratrol, berberine, chromium, and magnesium.

Resveratrol is a compound that can be found in red wine and is known for its antioxidant benefits as well as for improving insulin sensitivity[*].

In a randomized, double-blind trial, 21 insulin-resistant people were prescribed resveratrol. After 28 days, supplementation resulted in a 22% increase in glucose uptake in skeletal muscle tissue, demonstrating an improvement in insulin sensitivity[*]

Berberine is a plant alkaloid that has been shown to lower blood glucose. Researchers have considered berberine to be as effective as the anti-diabetic medication metformin[*][*].

Chromium is also an essential trace element that has some evidence of enhancing the effects of insulin and lowering blood glucose levels[*].

Magnesium is a mineral that is needed for more than 300 chemical reactions in the body and it’s crucial for the effectiveness of insulin. A reduction in magnesium in the cells can worsen insulin sensitivity[*].

Always make sure to consult your doctor before using supplements, especially if you are already on diabetic medication.

Being Insulin Sensitive May Help You Live Longer

Heart disease, obesity, and diabetes are three of the most common factors of mortality, all of which are related to insulin resistance.

Luckily, making smart lifestyle changes like incorporating a low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet, sleeping more, and stressing less can significantly improve your body’s insulin sensitivity and decrease your chances of developing insulin resistance.

Avoiding the deadly cycle of insulin resistance through a healthy lifestyle can be one of the most impactful choices you can make towards living a vibrant, disease-free life.

If you’re interested in starting your keto journey but are not sure where to start, check out this keto kickstart guide for keto beginners and start living your best life today.


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