Preventing & Healing Insulin Resistance
When you eat carbohydrates, your blood sugar rises, and the more starchy or refined the carb, the faster and higher your blood sugar will spike. In response to blood sugar rising, your pancreas produces and secretes insulin to help transport glucose from the blood and into the cells, where it can be used for energy. Insulin resistance occurs when cells have or develop a reduced response (i.e. become less sensitive) to insulin – so glucose does not enter the cells to be used for energy and instead remains in the bloodstream. As a result, the pancreas continues to secrete insulin in response to the higher blood sugar levels in a desperate attempt to signal the uptake of glucose by the cells.
There are several serious health consequences to long-term elevated blood sugar levels. These include damage to blood vessels that supply blood to vital organs, leading to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, kidney disease, vision problems, and nerve problems.
Insulin resistance itself can have disastrous consequences. It raises cortisol levels, primarily as a consequence of eating too much sugar and refined carbohydrates. Elevated cortisol has a negative cascading effect on other hormones – most notably, depleting progesterone leading to estrogen dominance. This same mechanism is implicated as a major culprit in the development of breast cancer. Insulin is also a fat-storage hormone which essentially tells your body to store excess sugar as fat – so insulin resistance can cause weight gain. Over time, your body’s cells become less responsive to insulin – causing even more to be pumped out (and more sugar to be stored as fat). Eventually, the cells become so unresponsive that diabetes results.
What causes insulin resistance?
There are many causes of insulin resistance, but diet is certainly the major contributor. A diet high in refined carbs, fructose (especially high fructose corn syrup), bad fats (particularly damaged or trans fats), and dairy products will promote insulin resistance due to the blood sugar spikes and stresses it puts the body through. Nutrient depletions are another culprit as they can be a sign of an excess of inflammatory compounds, which can be caused by environmental toxins. There is also a genetic component that can be due to defective insulin receptors or defective insulin signaling inside the cells.
How to heal
Luckily, preventing and healing from insulin resistance can be achieved through a variety of natural approaches – nutrition and lifestyle being the most important.
Focus on whole foods – low carb, low-glycemic index foods are optimal
Avoid refined and simple sugars as well as high fructose corn syrup, which is often found in packaged and processed foods
Avoid processed food in general as well as all fried foods
Include beans and legumes – they are high in fiber and therefore slow glucose absorption (i.e. slow the spike in blood sugar and keep blood sugar levels steady)
Eat plant-based omega-6 and food-based omega-3 fatty acids as much as possible to reduce inflammation and increase cells’ sensitivity to insulin
Choose organic animal products and avoid commercially raised meat – conventional animal products are loaded with inflammatory compounds that disrupt cell behavior
Reduce alcohol consumption, as it is high in sugar and promotes inflammation
Include plenty of cinnamon in drinks and food, as it increases insulin sensitivity and decreases fasting blood sugar levels
Diets with balanced carbs work better than very low carb diets – in other words, it is good to include foods like starchy vegetables, legumes, and whole grains in small amounts because carbohydrates promote serotonin production. Serotonin is not just your “feel good” hormone, it is also a neurotransmitter that controls appetite.
One of the effective ways to stabilize blood sugar is to eat the right kinds of foods in small amounts and often throughout the day (think 4-6 smaller meals). The easiest way to keep your blood sugar level even is to have a minimum of three meals a day, never miss breakfast, and have a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack (containing a healthy protein and fat).
Skipping meals and binging on foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates disrupts blood sugar balance and leads to cravings and desensitization of cells to insulin (i.e. insulin resistance). Therefore, it is critical to eat regularly and often. Also, reliance on caffeine to boost energy actually blocks the production of both serotonin and melatonin, which can result in tiredness, irritability, and feelings of anxiety and depression.
Stress adversely affects blood sugar control. Excessive exposure to stress (especially chronic exposure), be it from physical, mental, or emotional factors, leads to activation of the body’s stress response. This causes an increase in the stress hormones, particularly cortisol. Among many other things, cortisol causes blood glucose levels to rise and blunt the response to insulin.
Stress seems to be an inevitable part of modern living, so it is critical to develop effective methods to deal with it. Regular relaxation practices such as meditation, yoga, and singing can improve blood glucose control – especially in people who are anxious or experiencing significant stress in their lives.
Exercise is absolutely essential in the prevention and management of insulin resistance and diabetes. It directly improves insulin sensitivity and blood glucose control due to a combination of increased lean muscle mass and improvement in muscle cell metabolism. A combination of moderate intensity aerobics and resistance training is the best approach for increasing insulin sensitivity. Any type of daily movement is better than no movement at all.
While there are many supplements and herbs that are quite effective in improving insulin sensitivity and healing insulin resistance, it is important to understand that supplementation alone is not sufficient. You must incorporate the diet, stress management, and exercise guidelines above before considering supplementation. Once those pieces are in place, the following supplements can be incredibly effective in speeding up the healing process.
Chromium – is vital to proper blood glucose control because it functions in the body as a key constituent of what is known as glucose tolerance factor (GTF), a molecule that facilitates the action of insulin. As a result, chromium works closely with insulin in assisting the uptake of glucose into the cells. Without chromium, insulin’s action is blocked and glucose levels stay elevated. Try 400-600 mcg per day.
Magnesium – is involved in glucose metabolism (like chromium), as well as countless other body functions. Try 300-500 mg per day in the form of bisglycinate or citrate.
Zinc – is involved in virtually all aspects of insulin metabolism: synthesis, secretion, and utilization. It also has a protective effect against the destruction of beta cells (the cells that secrete insulin). Try 30 mg per day.
Biotin – functions in the manufacture and utilization of carbs, fats, and amino acids. Without biotin, sugar metabolism is severely impaired. Biotin can enhance insulin sensitivity and increase the activity of enzymes responsible in glucose metabolism. It works best in combination with chromium. Look for blends that contain the two.
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids – are vital nutrients, especially for diabetics. They are anti-inflammatory and promote insulin sensitivity. They are typically completely lacking in the basic diet of someone with insulin resistance. Try a combined EPA+DHA of 1,000 mg per day.
Goats Rue – helps to lower blood sugar levels, keeping them in a healthy balance, and protects against many of the side effects of diabetes. Can be taken in a tea, infusion or tablet form.
Gymnema Sylvestre - known in Ayurveda as the “sugar destroyer” gymnema helps to eliminate sugar cravings and lower blood sugar levels.
Fenugreek – increases insulin sensitivity and improves glycemic control. Also reduces cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Add to meals or infusions.
Milk Thistle – may support glucose and lipid metabolism, and protects liver cells from damage (common with insulin resistance). Best in tincture form. Take a full dropper 2-3x per day
If you have a family history of insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, or diabetes, prevention should be your number one focus. Luckily, following the recommendations throughout this guide will serve you well. If you already suffer from insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, or diabetes, following these guidelines can help you to recover and possibly even reduce or eliminate your reliance on medications.