10 top tips to prevent, improve and reverse insulin sensitivity and resistance
Crave carbs, have energy slumps, feeling tired, thirsty and pee a lot, is this you? If so you may be losing control of your blood sugar resulting in poor insulin sensitivity and resistance.
My article offers 10 top tips to prevent, improve and reverse insulin sensitivity and resistance through diet and lifestyle.
1. Find and address the root cause
The first step to improve insulin sensitivity is to understand what is the cause and drivers because there are many. For example for one person, it might be their diet and lifestyle (the most common), but it’s worth pointing out that gut health (also very common) stress, thyroid and adrenal problems need to be considered as well.
A skilled nutritional therapist practitioner would initiate a whole-person body system assessment to identify the body systems under stress. Once all this information is collated, your nutritional therapist will piece together your root causes and drivers and build a plan to kick-start the process of putting your insulin sensitivity and resistance into remission.
2. Blood sugar control
Most of my clients get excited about the prospect of not having to be on medications and taking insulin, the majority are well aware of the long-term complications and frustrated at not addressing the root causes of poor blood sugar associated disease. (Note: it’s very important that if you take any medications, that you continue to do so unless advised by your GP, doctor, or any other of the medical professionals responsible for your well-being).
One of the most important steps towards reversing your illness and preventing future complications is to normalise blood sugar. When blood sugar is normalised, our cells start their own healing process and begin to regain proper function, this has a knock-on effect on our vital organs and the reversal can start.
To achieve this, we need to look at what we eat, how we move, consider our mental health and be focused on the end goal of reversing your condition.
Every type of carbohydrate will increase blood glucose and insulin levels and this is what we need to focus on and maintain. It is important to reduce the amount of carbohydrate (sugar and starch) in the diet. This is because all carbohydrates cause the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood to rise and also cause the release of insulin into the bloodstream. Reducing carbohydrates, therefore, helps directly by keeping the blood glucose level stable and avoids high insulin levels. In time, as insulin levels reduce, it will result in the loss of fat from the liver. Insulin can again work more efficiently in controlling sugar levels, which in turn means the body does not release so much of it into the bloodstream.
There is no way to achieve this while eating foods with moderate or high easily digestible (non- fibre) carbohydrates. These foods include grains and processed grain products, beans, legumes, starchy vegetables, sweetened foods and beverages, and many fruits. These foods cause a surge of insulin to release from the pancreas and elevates blood sugar, if insulin resistant.
In order to achieve optimal blood sugar control, normalise blood glucose and insulin levels, one of the most crucial steps is to consistently follow a “whole food diet”, my definition of whole food is simply “food that hasn’t changed from its original state, is non-processed, non-refined, free from additive or artificial substances”.
Whole foods consist of low best quality carbohydrates, moderate protein diet, high in non-starchy vegetables, fibre, and healthy fats.
Our body is designed to move, frequently and consistently throughout the day. Lack of movement and inactivity has devastating consequences, it has an equal health risk as smoking, being overweight and becoming obese.
Why movement is so important: typically, we have about 2400 calories worth of readily available sugar in our bodies own warehouse. This is in the form of stored sugar in our muscles and liver (aka glycogen), approximately 4 grams (1 tsp) of glucose in the bloodstream, 100 grams in the liver and 500 grams in our muscles.
When we eat and drink, our blood sugar and insulin levels rise and the body stores glucose in the liver and muscles. However, if our warehouse is already full because it hasn’t been used, the body starts covering that extra glucose that we don’t have room for in our warehouse into fat instead. By not using our warehouse stock of sugar, our body never empties its warehouse or able to create space for new storage, by default, the excess sugar is stored as fat and we have already discussed the impact this can have.
Movement is essential in burning the glycogen stored in our body’s warehouse. When we do this, warehouse stock of sugar is replaced with the sugar in our bloodstream and therefore blood glucose levels will reduce. This is an automatic regulation system the body does in non-insulin resistant people and is imperative in blood glucose control.
5. Stress management
Stress is a generic term for when the body has to adapt or react to a difficult situation. Stress may be physical as in illness or injury, or mental such as that caused by anxiety or worry.
When the body is under stress, many hormones (adrenaline and glucocorticoid or aka steroid hormones) are released which oppose the action of insulin. The purpose of these hormones is to release stored glucose and fat energy to provide fuel for our cells to use for what has been traditionally referred to as the ‘flight or fight’ response, thus increasing levels of blood sugar, something we are aiming to avoid.
There is no evidence that stress affects insulin sensitivity, however, it is a by-product of stress and, unfortunately, is largely ignored. We know that high-stress life events, such as loss of a loved one, job change, moving, or divorce, can trigger blood sugar spikes. Likewise, long-term chronic stress can lead to high blood sugar and insulin resistance. There are numerous physiological stressors, such as allergies, food sensitivities, gut problems, chronic pain, infection, and inflammation which trigger our stress response and again raise blood sugar.
People experiencing stress often use food as a source of comfort, drink too much alcohol and smoke excessively, often forgetting to look after themselves and have zero motivation to be active. Such habits playing havoc and have a negative impact on blood sugar control.
I always recommend one or more of the following, meditation, yoga, walking in nature, breathing exercises and me time, plus more as ways to relax, this is essential in the reversal process of insulin sensitivity.
6. Sleep hygiene
Sleep deprivation is an often overlooked but significant risk factor. There are multiple studies that show a direct correlation between poor sleep quality and insulin resistance. The primary reason that lack of sleep can increase our risk is because our hormone system function stops working optimally and this leads to hormone imbalance of leptin, ghrelin, thyroid hormone, cortisol (cortisol is a stress hormone, and keeps you awake), and insulin, when this happens it leads to more fat storage, hunger pans and blood sugar problems.
Sleeping less than six hours per night decreases our ability of a “deep sleep”, which is thought to be the most restorative stage of sleep and plays a major role in maintaining proper insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control. Other benefits include optimising repair, maintenance, growth and cleaning to ensure full body performance and productivity; increased memory, improved concentration, immune system, reduced risk of chronic disease and better weight-loss.
In addition, sleep deprivation can increase appetite and reduce satiety levels, causing carbohydrates craving. Improving sleep quality is majorly important for achieving optimum health and metabolic function.
7. Switch from a sugar burner to a fat burner
Our metabolism via our cellular mitochondrial energy system (power generating organelles that give us life) burns both fat and sugar for fuel. When exercising we burn a percentage of fat over sugar, based on the type and intensity of the exercise. When we’re resting, we can burn either fat or sugar.
A sugar-burner is just what it sounds like: your body runs on glucose for fuel and will mostly ignore fat molecules even if stored or circulating in the blood. They tend to get hungry between meals, can feel “hangry” or irritable when skipping meals, and tend to have higher levels of blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood. Sugar burners are typically people with an excessive percentage of body fat, live a sedentary lifestyle and constantly eating throughout the day and evening.
A fat burner literally means your body shifts from sugar (glucose) as its primary fuel source to fat, it's more efficient than sugar, as much as twice as much energy is produced from the same amounts of fat as from sugar. Fat-burners can go long periods without eating, have steady, sustained energy, and tend to have lower triglycerides in the blood, thus providing optimal metabolic health and function, as well as good blood sugar control.
It takes time and isn’t easy, but when becoming a “fat-burner”, insulin levels normalise, and this helps optimise blood sugar control – something we are keen to do!
8. Gut health is key
Our gut is home for over 100 trillion bacteria cells aka ‘microbial and/or microbiome’, they play an essential role in our health, they influence on how we digest and assimilate food, the production and utilisation of neurotransmitters, hormones, and how our metabolism functions.
When gut bacteria environment is altered, this is associated with increased metabolic and immune disorders, reduced energy metabolism and extraction of energy from food, fat accumulation and vital immunity. In fact, gut health is involved in every disease in some capacity.
Various studies have shown that if there is an imbalance of gut bacteria (aka: dysbiosis), this contributes to insulin resistance and weight gain (plus others) – the exact reason for why is still unsure, but multiple studies conclude the same outcome.
9. Mindful eating
The following may sound a little hocus-pocus, but I assure you by applying mindfulness when making eating decisions will improve the choices you make of what you eat, especially in regard to the groceries you purchase and from where. As a byproduct you will start to eat healthier and this will contribute towards optimal health, something we are trying to achieve, right?
Mindful eating involves paying full attention to the experience of eating and drinking, open-minded awareness of how the food affects us both inside and outside the body. Paying attention to where the food has come from, is it organic or not, is it local or imported, has it remained in a natural state or has it been changed i.e. additives, preservatives, is it processed to extend shelf life over quality!
The colours, smells, textures, flavours, temperatures, and even the sounds (crunch!) of our food are important.
Mindful eating also means paying attention to the mind when eating, this is important because eating affects our mood and emotions, such as anxiety and can cause stress, we’ve already discussed why reducing stress is vital. Ask yourself when you eat do you get easily distracted, and defocus by not paying attention to what you’re eating or drinking, for example by the sudden urge to send a text, update social media, surf the web, turn on the TV or make a telephone call!
Paying attention to the experience of the body is also important. Where in the body do we feel hunger? What does hunger actually feel like? Am I hungry or thirsty? Do I need to eat more or am I satisfied?
It’s not easy to break old habits of how we eat and think about what we’re eating, but I assure you by doing so has a plethora of health benefits that we are trying to achieve.
10. Give time for your body to heal
There is no “band-aid solution” to rush healing and it is important that we accept healing takes time and healing is a process.
To be able to heal properly, it is important that you try to focus on your desire to be healed, not the time of when, but to achieve your overall health goal, in this case being medication free and reversing insulin sensitivity.
The body is capable of incredible recovery when fueled correctly, given the right support and time it needs to heal. Don’t try and rush healing, reversing illness doesn’t happen quickly.
There will be ups and downs, highs and lows. You cannot control every metabolic process or blood sugar variable, however, on the other hand, your behaviour, attitude, mindset, stress management, sleep quality, what you eat and movement is your responsibility and something that is under your complete control.
Focus on what you can control, be consistent and let your body heal in its own time and pace.
Improving overall health and function of your body and to give it the best opportunity to heal and recover optimally, requires a long-term strategy of improvements achieved via nutrition and lifestyle enhancements.
It takes time, not days or weeks, but months, and for some maybe a year or more, be patient, you can heal and reverse the progression of insulin sensitivity and resistance.