Fact-checked by Dr. Anthony Gustin, DC, MS.
Written by Lorenz Mac
Insulin sensitivity is a vital mechanism in your body that determines how efficient your body utilizes the effects of insulin.
People with low insulin sensitivity have a higher chance of developing metabolic diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
While some people may be born with healthier 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.
Because of this, the weight loss industry has begun to magnify the importance of insulin sensitivity.
In this article, we’ll talk about:
Insulin is a crucial hormone secreted by your pancreas.
Insulin’s job is to manage the nutrients you absorb from food. Insulin is known for its role in controlling blood sugar and carbohydrate consumption.
When you eat carbs, it increases the level of blood sugar in your bloodstream. This is acknowledged by the cells in your pancreas which then releases insulin into the blood.
Once the insulin is traveling in your bloodstream, it starts signaling the body’s cells that they should pick up sugar from the blood.
The purpose of this cycle is to reduce the amount of sugar in your blood and place it where it’s supposed to, into cells for storage.
This is crucial because abnormally high amounts of sugar in your blood can have harmful effects to your body and in some cases can lead to death if neglected.
Insulin sensitivity is a system in the body that determines how effectively your body can utilize carbohydrates.
Insulin sensitivity arbitrates how much insulin your body needs to produce to precipitate a certain amount of glucose (sugar). It’s the mechanism in your body that determines how much insulin needs to be released in order to deposit glucose in healthy amounts[*].
You are considered insulin sensitive if your body only needs to secrete a small amount of insulin to deposit glucose into the cells.
Having good insulin sensitivity is considered being in good health.
However, there are some rare cases where it can be harmful. People who have type 1 diabetes may increase the risk of hypoglycemia. This is when blood glucose falls to an unhealthy set point (below 4 mmol/L)[*].
Insulin sensitivity has turned into a widespread phenomena in the weight loss industry due to the evidence showing strong fat loss properties.
Studies have also demonstrated a direct correlation between increased insulin sensitivity when you have a lower body fat percentage[*].
The more insulin sensitive you are, the more carbohydrates your body can digest and convert into energy rather than stored as fat.
Low insulin sensitivity can be detrimental to your health. Many factors can cause the body to stop responding to insulin like it’s intended.
This is also called insulin resistance.
When you become insulin resistant, your pancreas starts creating more insulin in the 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 can continue for a long time. The cells in your body become even more insulin resistant and both your blood sugar levels and insulin go up.
Overtime, your pancreas won’t be able to keep up with the overproduction and begins to harm the cells in the pancreas. When this happens, your body starts producing less insulin and now your body will emit alarmingly high levels of blood sugar.
Abnormally high levels of blood sugar leads to type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance is the root cause of diabetes[*].
Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body doesn’t respond to insulin correctly.
It’s estimated that 80% of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight[*].
And while the cause of insulin resistance is not yet fully understood, researchers have found strong evidence linking excess fat around your body’s organs (visceral fat) and decreased insulin sensitivity[*].
There are three different kinds of insulin sensitivity; pancreatic, hepatic and peripheral[*].
- Peripheral insulin sensitivity – This is how accepting your body cells in your muscles and fat can absorb glucose either when stimulated by insulin or by themselves. 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 actual operation of the cells that begin to produce insulin (beta-cells). If beta-cells aren’t functioning properly, insulin resistance may develop.
There are both modifiable and non-modifiable factors that relate to insulin sensitivity. These are risk factors that increase the risk of you becoming insulin sensitive or insulin resistant.
Non-modifiable factors means they cannot be changed. This means 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 include; losing weight, stressing less, eating less carbohydrates and sleeping more.
The quickest and safest way to find out if you are insulin sensitive is to get a test done by your doctor.
Some experts claim that if you have an apple-shaped body or if you get tired after eating carbohydrates, then you’re insulin resistant.
But this isn’t the most accurate way to determine your insulin sensitivity.
There is a test called HOMA-IR that makes an accurate guess on 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. This is when your nurse or doctor takes a blood sample from a vein to test your starting blood sugar level. Then you drink a mixture of glucose dissolved into water and they test your blood glucose once again.
The more overweight you are and the larger amount of fat you have around the midsection, the higher your chances are of insulin resistance.
Luckily, insulin sensitivity isn’t a fixed mechanism in the body. It can be drastically improved and increased by changing your lifestyle.
Here are 10 ways to help improve your insulin sensitivity:
#1: Utilizing the Ketogenic Diet
If sugar worsens insulin resistance, incorporating a ketogenic diet will help drastically by eliminating carbohydrates altogether.
All carbohydrates trigger insulin and reducing carb intake down to less than 50 grams a day will help lower your body’s insulin levels.
One study performed on 10 obese subjects with type 2 diabetes consumed their regular diet for one week. Afterwards, they were fed 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 conducted on 146 overweight individuals were placed in 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 the amount compared to the low fat group[*].
Diets that restricts carbohydrates can have powerful benefits to improving insulin sensitivity. But it’s important to not teeter between a high carb diet to a ketogenic diet. Doing so can confuse the body on what type of energy to use (through 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 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 you 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 state 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.
Anaerobic exercise is also important and should be incorporated into your exercise regimen.
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 mixed with weight training, your body will be able to utilize carbohydrates more efficiently.
#3: Get More Sleep
Sleep is crucial for proper hormonal function in your body.Researchers have discovered that one night of sleep deprivation can decrease insulin sensitivity by 33%. Click To Tweet
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 and can worsen your insulin sensitivity.
Another study conducted studied nine healthy subjects once after a normal amount of sleep (eight hours) and once after a night of four hours of sleep. The results proved that just one night of sleep deprivation decreased insulin sensitivity in several metabolic pathways in healthy subjects.
Lack of sleep can also result in increased food consumption which further worsens insulin sensitivity.
#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 present in the form of glucose, so it begins to signal insulin to restrict the uptake of glucose to the cells.
Once the body has taken care of the stress-inducing situation, insulin stabilizes blood glucose levels.
The problem is the constant reactivation of this cycle. Constantly producing excess cortisol weakens the cells sensitivity to insulin.
To reduce stress in your life, you can[*]:
- 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 percentage and insulin resistance typically accompany one another. Many doctors believe that being overweight is one of the main causes for 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[*].
Researchers have found people with obesity who lost just five percent of 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 small intestines, helping reduce the amount of sugar that enters your blood. Soluble fiber is known for reducing appetite and lowering cholesterol[*].
Whereas insoluble fiber reduces the travel time in your large intestine. It basically helps your body move stool through the bowels.
Incorporating foods high in soluble fiber such as vegetables, legumes or even supplementing with Psyllium Husk capsules may benefit your body’s insulin sensitivity.
#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 detriment.
There are two main types of added sugar — fructose (corn syrup) and sucrose (table sugar).
Fructose even impacts healthy individuals who show no signs of diabetes.
One study administered 25% of their daily caloric intake with fructose for eight weeks to overweight subjects. Another group of people were given glucose.
The results showed that the fructose group but not the glucose group developed pre-diabetes just after eight weeks[*].
Fructose stimulates insulin production both in the short and long term.
The dangers of sugar stem from the fact that they aren’t just empty calories. Sugars negatively stimulate both insulin and insulin resistance.
Cutting out sugars in your diet will help your body regulate the insulin cycle and will prevent your body from pre-diabetic conditions.
#8: Experiment with Supplements
There are four natural supplements with evidence to prove its efficacy; resveratrol, berberine, chromium and magnesium.
Resveratrol is a polyphenolic compound that can be found in red wine and is known for its antioxidant benefits as well as improving insulin sensitivity.
A randomized, double-blind trial involving 21 insulin resistant individuals were prescribed resveratrol. After 28 days, the supplementation resulted in a 22% increase in glucose uptake in the 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 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. It’s crucial for the effectiveness of insulin and a reduction in magnesium in the cells can worsen insulin sensitivity[*].
Always make sure to check with your doctor, especially if you are already on diabetic medication before using supplements.
Insulin Sensitivity Will Help You Live Longer
Study after study shows that insulin resistance is responsible for several prevalent chronic diseases killing millions of lives.
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 deathly 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.