Insulin sensitivity is something you’ll never stop hearing about or thinking about as a person with diabetes.
If you live with type 2 diabetes, your diagnosis is partly related to your body’s sensitivity to insulin. (And the other part, of course, is how well your beta-cells are able to produce insulin.)
If you live with type 1 diabetes, insulin sensitivity isn’t something you’ll likely start thinking about until you’ve lived with the disease for long enough to see your insulin needs drastically change based on your sensitivity changing.
In this article, we’ll discuss 6 ways to improve your body’s sensitivity to insulin which, in turn, makes it “easier” to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
What is insulin sensitivity?
Your insulin sensitivity determines the amount of insulin your body needs to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
The more severe your body’s insulin resistance is, the less sensitive to insulin you are.
There are some things we cannot control when it comes to improving insulin sensitivity. Hormones create tremendous insulin resistance, and your body relies on those hormones to stay alive: to maintain reproductive health (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone), to manage pain (cortisol), and to respond quickly during an intense situation (adrenaline). And many more!
But when hormone levels are running higher than normal — like during a stressful divorce, after the death of a loved one, or even during a big presentation at work — you will likely see your blood sugar levels rise, demanding that you take more insulin than usual.
Striving to maintain or improve your body’s sensitivity to insulin is as worthwhile a goal as striving to maintain or improve your HbA1c. The more sensitive you are to insulin (whether it’s the insulin you produce or get from a vial), the easier it will be to reach your blood sugar goals.
How to improve your insulin sensitivity
Let’s take a look at legitimate ways you can make an impact on your body’s sensitivity to insulin as a person with diabetes.
If you do nothing else to improve your blood sugars, do this: go for a walk every day.
When you exercise, your body’s ability to pull glucose into your cells and use that glucose for energy increases tremendously. Not only while you’re exercising but also during the hours afterward. If you’re exercising every day — deeming yourself an “active person” — you’ll find your overall insulin needs will decrease and your blood sugars will stay in your goal range without as much effort.
Making exercise a bigger part of your life can feel overwhelming and impossible. It’s easy to find a million excuses why you don’t have time, can’t afford a gym membership, have too much pain in your knees, or you’re just “too tired.”
The fact is that you do have time. You don’t need a gym membership. Your joints will produce more supportive fluid the more you use those joints. And there’s truly no better way to boost your energy than to get moving!
Ditch the excuses and commit to moving for merely 10 or 15 minutes every day. When your body starts to thank you for that, you’ll want to increase it.
Improve the quality of your diet
If you haven’t taken an honest look at your current nutrition and habits around food, it’s time. Changing your relationship with food is harder than adding 15 minutes of exercise to your day. Swapping a big bowl of pasta for a big salad with chicken is harder than going for a walk every day before lunch.
There are so many trendy diets and fad eating programs out there today. And the one thing they almost all have in common is the long list of things they forbid you from eating. For many people, this will deter you from even trying to make changes or it will be impossible to sustain for more than a week or two.
Improving your nutrition doesn’t have to be “all or nothing,” and it certainly doesn’t have to completely change overnight. Instead of trying to revamp everything you eat today, try this:
- Write down what you truly eat for a few days.
- Take a few days to look at and think about that food diary.
- Choose one part of the day that you’re willing to experiment with eating more real food (for example, start by trying a healthier breakfast).
- In the meantime, start learning! Every day, read one article or listen to one podcast about nutrition. Just open your mind to learning about embracing whole real food and ditching the junky processed stuff.
Remember that your relationship with food is an evolution. You could spend the next 10 years working on it and you’ll still be learning more about your body, your diabetes, and what the best approach to nutrition is for you. The foods you eat this year that work well for you may not be what works well 5 years from now.
It’s a work in progress. A lifelong project. And it should taste good!
Fortunately, the results of “get moving” and “improve the quality of your diet” will help you with losing weight. Losing weight has a massive impact on your insulin needs because body fat simply blunts your body’s sensitivity to insulin, causing you to need more and more.
Even losing 5 pounds can lead to a noticeable reduction in your blood sugar! For someone who is already at an “average” weight, a 5-pound weight loss could easily require a quick reduction in your insulin doses, otherwise, you’ll find yourself experiencing a lot of low blood sugars. (Talk to your doctor about making this adjustment — it could be a reduction of anywhere from 1 to 3 units!)
For someone struggling with obesity, a 5-pound weight loss may not show up immediately in your blood sugar levels or insulin doses, but you’re well on your way! Another 5 down and you will start to see the benefits.
The trickiest part of losing weight is that it does take time. If you give up or deem your efforts pointless after the first 3 weeks, you need to take a deep breath and get back on that weight-loss wagon!
For most, it will take at least four weeks before you see your gradual weight loss in how your clothing fits or the number on the scale. In fact, ditch the scale completely.
Instead of using your body weight to assess your progress, use a calendar to check off each day that you gave it your all and strive to make healthier choices around exercise and food that day.
The weight loss will come if your daily actions, habits, and mindset are focused on living a healthier life. It doesn’t need to be 100 percent perfection to get results, but the effort needs to be there. And when you get off-track for a day, wake up the next day and start fresh.
This one is tricky because stress is part of life. There’s no way to eliminate it completely and many of the good things in life can create a stress response in your body that can worsen your insulin sensitivity.
You likely already know the big ones: cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine.
“Reactions to stress are associated with enhanced secretion of a number of hormones including glucocorticoids, catecholamines, growth hormone and prolactin, the effect of which is to increase mobilization of energy sources and adapt the individual to its new circumstance,” explains a 2011 study from India.
The effects of sudden stress can easily lead to very sudden spikes in your blood sugar. This initial spike is the result of your liver dumping glycogen (stored glucose) to give your body energy to deal with the stress.
But even an hour or two later, when you’re dealing with that high blood sugar, you’ll likely find that your extra doses of insulin aren’t correcting the highs very effectively. This is partly due to your body still possibly being in a state of stress, and also due to the impact of these hormones on our sensitivity to insulin.
The effects of ongoing, long-term stress can lead to a constant underlying level of insulin resistance that is causing your day-to-day insulin needs to be higher than they might otherwise be.
Reducing ongoing stress is tricky. A great deal of it is often out of our control. If you can’t reduce the trigger of that stress, the best option is to increase your insulin doses or other medications with the help of your doctor.
Get more sleep
Speaking of stress hormones, when your body doesn’t get the rest it needs, you release more cortisol. A night here or there where you traded a few hours of sleep for a few more hours of a great weekend with your friends isn’t a big deal — although you might still notice it in your blood sugars the next day and well into the next evening, too.
But night after night of too little sleep will lead to chronically high cortisol production which leads to tremendous insulin resistance.
Cortisol is often thought of as an entirely negative hormone, but you need cortisol every day to stay alive and function.
“In survival mode, the optimal amounts of cortisol can be life-saving. It helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure, while regulating some body functions that aren’t crucial in the moment, like reproductive drive, immunity, digestion, and growth,” explains LIFE.
Too much cortisol, however, isn’t helpful at all.
Sleep is a crucial part of your daily health — especially if you have diabetes. Take a look at your current sleep habits. Do you get at least 6 hours of sleep a night? Ideally, aiming for 8 hours?
Of course, diabetes can easily wake you up and keep you up at night, too. If your blood sugar fluctuations are consistently interfering with your sleep, it’s time to fine-tune your insulin doses.
You should be able to get plenty of good sleep as a person with diabetes — talk to your healthcare team about improving the snooze time in your life!
Drink less alcohol
Simply put, alcohol is a toxin. While a glass of wine may contain antioxidants, it is still predominantly a substance that your body sees as a threat to your well-being. As soon as alcohol is present, your liver stops doing much else beyond working to rid your body of that toxin as quickly as possible.
While “moderate” alcohol consumption has been tied to improving blood sugar levels in some research, it’s a very thin line between helpful and harmful.
Moderate drinking is one drink per day for a woman and two drinks per day for a man. One drink is either 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits like vodka or whiskey.
Other research, however, finds that even 30 days of alcohol abstinence can produce a significant increase in your sensitivity to insulin.
Further, binge drinking even once per month is associated with a greater risk of type 2 diabetes and higher levels of insulin resistance.
“Binge drinking, which is defined as the consumption of five drinks of alcohol within 2 hours in men or four drinks in women, once a month or more often is associated with an increased risk for developing the metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes,” explains this 2013 study.
The study also found that levels of insulin resistance are increased long after the alcohol has been metabolized and cleared from your system.
Why improving insulin sensitivity isn’t complicated
If you look at this list, it comes down to everything you already know about improving your overall health. Whether or not someone has diabetes or is struggling with insulin resistance, these habits are going to help you live a longer, fuller, healthier life.
These habits will decrease your risk of heart disease, heart attack, cancer, dementia, hypertension, obesity, and more!
All the pills and medications in the world can’t compensate for making smart choices most of the time around exercise, nutrition, weight loss, sleep, stress, and alcohol!
If you’re overwhelmed by the idea of tackling all at once, just choose one or two to focus on for the next 6 months. When you’ve got those under your belt, you might just find you’re eager to work on the others.