The types and amounts of food you eat every day doesn’t just affect your health in the long-term. Everything you eat has an immediate effect on your blood sugar. How your body responds to a hormone called insulin often determines how healthy you are. Insulin sensitivity — or lack thereof — can destroy your health over time. It can give you diabetes, elevate your blood pressure, and raise levels of bad cholesterol in your blood. Let’s look at what insulin sensitivity it, and everything you can do to improve it.


What is insulin sensitivity?

The purpose of eating food is to give your cells energy. Your body uses and stores energy in the form of glucose. After a meal, your body converts what you’ve eaten into usable energy. When glucose (sugar) enters your bloodstream as your food digests, your blood sugar rises. This signals to your pancreas that it’s time to make insulin.

Insulin is the hormone your pancreas produces to take sugar out of your blood and transport it to your cells where it’s needed. Once sugar leaves your bloodstream, your blood sugar drops back down to a normal level — approximately less than 140 mg/dl two hours after eating.

How much insulin your body needs to make in order to control your blood sugar depends on your level of insulin sensitivity, or how readily your cells accept the sugar insulin has to offer. High insulin sensitivity requires smaller amounts of insulin; low insulin sensitivity requires more. Low insulin sensitivity, unfortunately, can cause a number of other problems down the line.

In some people, the cells don’t respond as well to insulin as they’re supposed to. The more sensitive you are to insulin, the less insulin your body needs to make in order to metabolize glucose and keep your blood sugar within a safe range. When your cells don’t allow the proper delivery of insulin, sugar stays in your blood — which can raise your blood sugar to very high, sometimes dangerous levels. This is known as insulin resistance.

Insulin sensitivity

What happens when your body becomes resistant to insulin?

Low insulin sensitivity triggers a vicious cycle that can wear your pancreas out. When cells become insulin resistant, they no longer absorb the sugar in your blood. Thus, sugar starts to build up in your blood, raising your blood sugar.

High blood sugar forces your pancreas to make extra insulin to compensate for the sugar overload. But insulin-resistant cells still won’t use insulin properly regardless of how much insulin your pancreas tries to make. If you consistently consume high amounts of sugar, eventually, your pancreas just won’t be able to keep up with such a high demand for more insulin hormone. It might just stop producing insulin altogether.

Insulin resistance can eventually lead to diabetes, as well as organ and nerve damage. It can affect your blood pressure and cholesterol as well. Whether you have pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, or you’re not in the danger zone yet, improving your insulin resistance can change your life. Here are a few things you can do to treat poor insulin resistance before it causes long-lasting damage.

1. Eat more fiber

Fiber is a type of complex carbohydrate. This basically means that, unlike straight sugar, fiber moves through your digestive system slowly. Fiber keeps you fuller for longer periods of time because when it does break down into a simpler sugar, that sugar enters your bloodstream slowly. This causes a much slower release of insulin, and doesn’t cause a drastic blood sugar spike. Keeping your blood sugar under control will help your cells readily absorb the sugar in your blood.

To get more fiber in your diet, eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as plenty of whole grains. Beans, nuts, and seeds — plant-based protein foods — are also excellent sources of dietary fiber.

2. Add fruits and vegetables to your plate

Produce is one of the best sources of fiber you can find. Fruits and vegetables are also plant foods. Diets largely made up of plant-based sources of nutrition tend to lead to better insulin sensitivity. For a number of reasons, people who eat more fruits and vegetables are more likely to have consistent blood sugar readings within normal range.

If you can, eat the skin on all your fruits and vegetables, too. The peels of certain fruits, like avocados, bananas, and oranges, you obviously aren’t going to eat. But avoid peeling your apples, tomatoes, zucchini, etc. The skin contains most, but not all, produce’s fiber, and a large percentage of their vitamins and minerals. This is one reason why eating whole fruits and vegetables is still important, even though you can remove the skin when adding them to a smoothie. Consuming all the edible portions of a food ensures you’re getting all the nutrition, especially the fiber that keeps your blood sugar under control.

3. Consume fewer carbs

About 50 percent of your daily calories should come from carbs. For a large number of people, these don’t turn out to be good carbs. White bread, sugary beverages and cereals, candy, potato chips, and desserts are all high in sugar. Remember, eating a lot of sugar makes your pancreas work overtime. Fewer carbs, spread evenly throughout the day, helps insulin do its job without overwhelming the rest of your body.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should replace carbs with high-fat, high-calorie foods. You should first try to incorporate more protein and healthy fats into your diet, to balance out your macronutrient intake. Eating fewer simple-carbohydrate foods, like candy and other junk foods, will really help maintain your blood sugar and improve your insulin sensitivity.

4. Cut out added sugars

Added sugars — the kind of sugar added to foods during processing — are a major contributor to poor insulin sensitivity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes risk factors. The problem is, many junk foods that have added sugars in them are much higher in sugar per serving than a piece of fruit or a bowl of whole grain cereal. Just a serving or two of potato chips can send your blood sugar through the roof. Cutting back on your added sugar intake can make a huge difference.

Aside from its poor implications for your overall health, eating too much sugar can also lead to more intense sugar cravings. It’s also possible to become addicted to sugar if you eat too much of it. The more you crave sugar, the more likely you are to eat too much of it. Again, too much sugar does not make for a happy pancreas.

5. Make your protein count

Experts aren’t entirely sure whether it’s protein itself that helps you feel full, or other nutrients in high-protein foods that do the trick. Regardless, eating more protein can help you reduce your intake of saturated fat and processed sugars. Protein is a source of energy, like carbs, but making sure you’re filling your tank with high-quality gas will help you in more ways than one.

You don’t have to triple your meat intake to add more quality protein to your diet. You’ll also find plenty of protein in eggs, fish, nuts, seeds, and many vegetables and whole grains. Foods high in protein tend to fill you up, which will hopefully take care of your temptation to eat more sugar than you need to.

6. Cook with more spices and herbs

Some animal research has suggested that ingredients like ginger and garlic can improve your insulin sensitivity. Though we’re not sure if they have the same long-term effect in humans, there’s another way herbs and spices can improve your sensitivity to insulin. You just might have to do some experimenting in the comfort of your own kitchen.

Herbs and spices add flavor to food. So do ingredients like sugar, butter, and salt. Substituting sugar with other ingredients could significantly reduce the amount of extra sugar you put into your body. Less sugar in your blood means a less stressed-out pancreas. In the long term, that’s an organ you’re going to want to keep stress-free and satisfied.

7. Get a good night’s sleep

A few very small studies have suggested sleep deprivation can harm your insulin resistance over time. What’s more, sleep deprivation can negatively impact your health in a number of ways. A bad night’s sleep might send your stress levels soaring. It could also raise your blood pressure, which puts more physical stress on your body. Weight gain is also often associated with poor sleep. Gaining weight can have unwanted effects on your insulin sensitivity as well.

There are a few key things you can do to improve your sleep — and your insulin sensitivity. Fast from all screen time for at least an hour before you go to sleep. Don’t drink caffeine too late in the day. If going to bed full upsets your sleep, try to eat earlier in the evening. If going to bed hungry makes you restless, have a small, high-protein snack a few hours before bed.

8. Manage your stress

Stress is your body’s way of protecting you from potential dangers — e.g., a cheetah is chasing you and you need to run for your life. Your fight-or-flight response is all about stress. Though you probably won’t be outrunning a giant feline anytime soon, your body doesn’t know it’s just your seemingly harmless co-workers stressing you out. It’s going to prepare you for a life-saving sprint nonetheless.

One of the ways your body prepares you for responding to stressful situations is by breaking down the energy you have stored in your body for safekeeping. It breaks those compounds down into glucose which, as you know, enters your bloodstream so your body’s cells can use it.

If a cheetah were chasing you, this would be a good thing. But you’re not going anywhere. So as your body dumps extra sugar into your blood, and you’re not using it all, guess what happens? Your pancreas goes into overdrive. Your cells resist, since they don’t need that extra sugar. It’s a biological nightmare.

So if you really want to improve your insulin sensitivity … chill out. Do yoga. Meditate. Buy a stress ball. The less time you spend in stress mode, the healthier you’ll be.

9. Get some exercise

Physical activity has the power to improve your insulin resistance fairly quickly. It promotes the movement of sugar into your muscle cells. When you’re exercising, your muscles need energy to bear the weight of your body or resist the weight you’re lifting, so it calls on the sugar in your blood for assistance. So even if your insulin sensitivity is low, your cells demand that sugar — and insulin delivers.

Exercising is just good for you overall. There are more reasons you should start than valid excuses why you shouldn’t. You’ll improve your mood. You’ll have more energy throughout the day. You might even sleep better at night. Working out can be tough at first, both in planning and execution. But just 10 minutes of exercise at a time will start to have a positive impact on your health almost immediately.

10. Shed those extra pounds

Extra weight, especially belly fat, can actually lower your insulin sensitivity and promote insulin resistance. This is why it’s so much more common for someone who is overweight to develop type 2 diabetes. Losing weight, a little at a time, can improve your insulin sensitivity. You might even be able to prevent or reverse type 2 diabetes in some cases, depending on what’s causing your condition.

While the many causes of overweight and obesity aren’t all related to food, a combination of diet, exercise, stress management, and better sleep can all contribute to weight loss. Losing weight might not fix all your problems, but it can certainly help you feel better, and help your body function better, too.

While there are many things in life you cannot change, your insulin sensitivity is something you can gain control over. Develop the healthy habits to promote positive changes, and you will notice a difference. Eat more produce, protein, and fiber. Get creative with your cooking. Get some rest, chill out, work out, and get your weight under control. The length and quality of your life depend on it.

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