Blood sugar (glucose) has an important chaperone in the body known as insulin. This hormone helps usher glucose into the cells where it can be used for energy. Without insulin, cells would not have access to this vital fuel source.
After a meal, the digestive system breaks down carbohydrates into glucose. Glucose is then absorbed from the digestive tract into the bloodstream causing blood sugar levels to rise. To control and balance these blood sugar levels, the pancreas produces the hormone, insulin. With the help of insulin, the cells absorb glucose from the bloodstream which they use as energy to perform their various functions. (14)
What is insulin resistance?
Insulin resistance occurs when cells lose their sensitivity to insulin causing an inability to uptake and utilize glucose for various tissues in the body. Cells become insulin resistant, which is problematic because as a result, they don’t get the energy they need, while glucose continues to circulate in the bloodstream at higher and higher levels. (12)
When insulin resistance occurs, it can increase the risk of many illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The detrimental effects of insulin resistance take place over a long period. According to scientific literature, insulin resistance can precede type 2 diabetes development by as long as ten to 15 years. (5) To avoid the long-term negative health implications of insulin resistance, it’s important to identify and address the causes as early as possible. (14)
Risk factors for insulin resistance
There are certain genetic and lifestyle risk factors that contribute to the development of insulin resistance. These include:
- A history of heart disease or stroke
- A history of gestational diabetes
- Being age 45 or older
- Being overweight or obese
- Certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and abnormal cholesterol levels
- Family history of diabetes
- Lack of sleep
- Physical inactivity
- Poor diet
- Smoking (5)(14)
How to address insulin resistance
Making lifestyle changes can help your body respond better to insulin and thus prevent and manage insulin resistance. (14) The main lifestyle changes that help improve your body’s insulin response include:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Engaging in regular physical activity
- Limiting processed and packaged foods
- Managing stress
- Managing weight
- Quitting smoking (21)
The macronutrient content, which is the amount of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins of your diet, and quality of foods consumed is directly linked with improved insulin sensitivity. Furthermore, managing your weight or losing body fat through a combination of diet and exercise is necessary for managing and reversing insulin resistance. (26)
Dietary factors that are effective with this goal in mind include:
- Eating high fiber foods such as beans, lentils, low-starch vegetables, and whole grains
- Enjoying high protein foods as fish, lean meats, nuts, seeds, and legumes
- Limiting processed foods, refined grains
- Opting for low-glycemic foods (26)
For more information about managing blood sugar levels and addressing insulin resistance through dietary modifications, visit the Fullscript blog.
A lack of physical activity is considered to be a risk factor for developing insulin resistance. (14) For this reason, engaging in regular physical activity is an important part of staying healthy and lowering blood sugar levels. Physical activity can directly help with managing insulin resistance by allowing the body’s cells to take in sugar from the bloodstream without the need for insulin, and thus lowering blood sugar levels. (27) Exercise also helps to improve the way your body uses insulin and can also reduce risk factor for insulin resistance by:
- Helping you control your weight
- Helping you quit smoking
- Improving your mental health and mood
- Improving your sleep
- Increasing muscle mass
- Reducing your risk of heart disease (15)
Most types of physical activity can help to balance blood sugar levels. Incorporating different types of activity will provide the most benefit and will also prevent boredom. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should aim for approximately 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week. However, research demonstrates that you don’t necessarily need to reach or exceed these recommendations to experience benefits. In fact, single bouts of exercise can improve insulin sensitivity. (22)
Aerobic exercise is anything that makes your heart beat faster and you breathe harder. Examples of aerobic activities include:
- Brisk walking
- Climbing stairs
- Playing sports or games such as tennis, basketball, or soccer
- Riding a bike
- Roller blading
- Taking exercise classes such as spin or zumba (15)
Strength training is also beneficial as it helps build muscle and strengthen bones. Increasing your muscle mass makes your body burn more calories which in turn, helps you lose unhealthy weight. Try to include strength training two to three times a week. Examples of strength training include:
- Body weight exercises, such as push ups and sit ups
- Lifting weights
- Resistance training with elastic bands
Stretching exercises are considered to be light to moderate physical activity. Stretching helps to improve flexibility, reduce stress and prevent sore muscles. Yoga is an excellent stretching activity as it focuses on both stretching and deep breathing which helps to reduce stress. (15)
Did you know? Getting regular exercise can mitigate the effects that sleep deprivation has on blood sugar levels. (24)
The average sleep duration in the United States is now below the recommended seven to eight hours per night. This is problematic because getting enough sleep is critical to preventing and addressing insulin resistance. Research has shown that sleeping for five hours or less a night for a duration of one week or longer significantly reduces insulin sensitivity. (2) For this reason chronic insufficient sleep or poor quality sleep are considered to be a risk factor for developing insulin resistance. (18) There is still more research required to fully understand the connection between sleep and blood sugars, but what we do know is the following factors influence blood sugar:
- The amount of time a person sleeps
- The stages of sleep a person experiences
- The time of day a person sleep (4)(17)(20)
For these reasons it is important to ensure that we get an adequate amount of restorative sleep every night.
Did you know? Not getting enough sleep can increase appetite and cravings for unhealthy foods leading to excess weight gain and obesity, and therefore increase the risk of developing insulin resistance. (5)(7)
Recent research has shown that chronic stress and depression are risk factors that can contribute to the development of insulin resistance and diabetes. (13) That means that stress is another important lifestyle factor that should be taken into consideration when dealing with insulin resistance. When we are stressed, our bodies release stress hormones such as cortisol, which in turn, increase blood sugar. (3)(19) Historically speaking, the blood sugar spikes caused by stress hormones provide the body with the energy to face a threat or run to safety. (16) However, modern day stressors such as work, finances, and family are more chronic (longer term) as opposed to acute (shorter term) and do not require the elevated blood sugar to either fight or run from a threat. In response to chronic stress, blood sugar levels stay chronically elevated, which can inevitably lead to insulin resistance and other health conditions. (16)
For more information about stress and how to manage stress naturally, visit the Fullscript blog.
The bottom line
Insulin resistance occurs when the body does not respond to insulin the way it should, which causes blood sugar levels to remain high. There are various lifestyle factors such as diet, lack of exercise, stress, and poor sleep that contribute to the development of insulin resistance. These same factors need to be addressed when trying to manage insulin resistance. Always speak to your integrative practitioner before making any major changes to your wellness plan.
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- Buxton, O. M., Pavlova, M., Reid, E. W., Wang, W., Simonson, D. C., & Adler, G. K. (2010). Sleep restriction for 1 week reduces insulin sensitivity in healthy men. v(9), 2126–2133.
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