Insulin resistance is a term that is frequently referred to, especially when discussing type 2 diabetes. But, what actually is insulin resistance? How does it affect our health? 

If a person develops insulin resistance, this means their body has become less sensitive to the actions of the insulin produced by the pancreas. A primary role of the hormone insulin is to move the sugar from within the bloodstream into the cells. This happens by way of insulin receptor sites on the cell; think of insulin as a key and the receptor sites as the keyhole. When insulin attaches to the sites on the outside of the cell (on the cell membrane), this allows for sugar – i.e. glucose – to enter into the cell from the bloodstream. This is the goal since our cells get their energy from glucose and, after all, they do need energy to perform all of their tasks that are so vital to our health! However, when our cells become resistant to insulin, this key and keyhole method becomes less efficient. As a result, more glucose is kept in the bloodstream rather than being taken in by cells. When this is the case, there are many problems that occur. 

When the glucose remains in the bloodstream due to insulin resistance, not only do our cells become starved from their energy source, but the pancreas is also tricked into thinking there isn’t enough insulin circulating through the body. As a result of this, it secretes more insulin in order to continue to try to lower blood glucose levels. However, with the receptor sites not functioning at optimal level, more insulin simply remains in the bloodstream. Overtime, the pancreas will be unable to keep up with the increased need for insulin. This leads to the development of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. In addition to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, there are many other health concerns that come about from insulin resistance. 

A very common side effect of insulin resistance is weight gain from an increase in body fat, specifically in the abdominal region. Insulin resistance also affects heart health due to high levels of insulin in the blood leading to atherosclerosis. High blood pressure, higher levels of LDL cholesterol (commonly known as “bad” cholesterol), increased inflammation, and increased risk for blood clots are also all negative effects of insulin resistance. 

The goal? If someone is on the path to insulin resistance or has already developed it, the goal is to improve insulin sensitivity. Improving insulin sensitivity means that the cells will, once again, be sensitive to the effects of insulin; the key and keyhole mechanism will return to being efficient and insulin will help glucose get into the cells. We want cells to be responsive to insulin! 

How can you help your cells be more responsive to insulin? Carbohydrates play a central role in the cause, prevention and treatment of insulin resistance. As a rule of thumb, processed and refined (also known as simple) carbs add fuel to the fire of insulin resistance – meaning they make matters worse and it would be wise to avoid them. When referring to refined carbohydrates, think of conventionally produced bread, pizza, sweets, crackers, etc. They negatively affect insulin resistance due to how they act within our bodies once we have consumed them; they cause rapid blood sugar spikes, leading to an increased need for insulin. On the other hand, we should be focusing on the consumption of complex carbohydrates, as they are rich in fiber. Fiber, specifically soluble fiber, helps to prevent any rapid rises of blood sugar – preventing a need for an influx of insulin. Some foods that contain soluble fiber include beans, peas, lentils, most vegetables, nuts, seeds, oat bran, citrus fruits, pears and apples. 

Fats also play a role in the development and prevention of insulin resistance. The type of fat being consumed determines whether it will increase the risk of insulin resistance or lessen it. Saturated fats from animal foods and trans fats are positively correlated with insulin resistance; the more of them a person eats, the more likely they are to develop insulin resistance and, down the road, type 2 diabetes. A diet high in these “bad” fats affects the health of the cell membrane, which is the outside layer of the cell. This is where the insulin receptor sites are located. If the cell membrane is not in good health, there is reduced binding of insulin to the receptor sites and/or reduced action of insulin. On the other hand, healthy fats such as monounsaturated fats and omega-3’s (sources include olive oil, nuts and seeds, salmon, etc.), promote the health of the cellular membrane and improve insulin action. Yet another reason to make sure you consume your healthy fats each day! 

A simple trick to help decrease any blood sugar spikes, and therefore an increase of insulin, is to consume protein with each meal and snack. When protein is paired with a source of carbohydrates (fruit, vegetables, grains, etc.), it delays digestion and, in turn, slows the release of glucose into the bloodstream. With this delay in release of glucose into the bloodstream, there is no need for the pancreas to secrete large amounts of insulin. Consuming healthy fats at meals and snacks also helps to slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream. 

This is another example showing that what we eat affects our health at the cellular level. Food is a very important component in improving the body’s response to insulin. As it can be expected, other lifestyle factors affect this as well! In addition to the tips mentioned above, the following are a list of additional diet and lifestyle choices that help to improve insulin sensitivity. 

  1. Get more sleep  When the body is low on sleep, its insulin sensitivity is reduced and it will struggle to regulate blood glucose levels. 
  2. Get moving! Exercise is a great way to improve insulin sensitivity. 
  3. Reduce stress Believe it or not, stress affects the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. Looking for ways to help your body handle stress? Good nutrition, physical activity and healthy sleeping habits are all ways to help your body handle life’s stressors – without letting them take a toll on your health! 
  4. Use herbs and spices Herbs and spices make up a large portion of nature’s medicine cabinet. Using herbs and spices such as fenugreek seeds, turmeric, garlic, ginger and cinnamon will help to improve insulin sensitivity – and they’ll add so much flavor to your foods!
  5. Add color to your diet (from plants)! Eating a diet rich in colorful plants means you get to reap all the benefits of the beneficial plant compounds – including antioxidants. A diet rich in plant compounds is linked to increased insulin sensitivity.