What is Insulin Sensitivity?
The first step in knowing how to improve insulin sensitivity is getting clear on the answer to the question: “What is insulin sensitivity?”
'High Glycemic Meal': Regularly starting your day with a breakfast like this can wreak havoc on blood sugar levels and could contribute to eventually developing insulin resistance
Insulin’s major role in the body is to regulate carbohydrate and fat metabolism. Without this hormone, a spike in blood sugar from simply eating a meal would cause a shellacking to our organs that could be lethal. This peptide hormone, released by the pancreas, causes blood glucose to be taken in by the liver, muscles, and fat cells. This has the effect of lowering blood sugar and providing energy fuel for our bodies.
How does insulin do this?
When released by the pancreas due to a blood sugar rise, insulin normally binds to the body’s cell receptors. This is where it activates the cell by opening portals on the cell’s surface so that glucose can enter it. Once inside the cell, glucose can be converted into bodily energy. This function of insulin works rather seamlessly if the cells remain “sensitive” to the insulin; that is, they respond easily to the insulin’s attempt at opening the cell’s portals. If the cells become “resistant” to insulin instead, they end up deprived of energy while higher levels of glucose build up in the blood. If blood glucose levels remain constantly high due to the insulin resistance, Type 2 Diabetes can result.
Of course, there are different levels of insulin resistance. A diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes is the extreme of this negative condition. Being maximally insulin sensitive is its healthy opposite. And given the increased fat gains and long-term tissue damage that can result from above-normal blood glucose levels, it becomes obvious why finding out ‘how to improve insulin sensitivity’ is in our best interest.
Increased Insulin Sensitivity: The benefits
When we learn how to improve insulin sensitivity and actually make it happen, less insulin is needed by our bodies to convert glucose into energy. This leads to overall lower daily insulin levels. That’s a good thing. Since insulin is basically an energy storage hormone, requiring minimal amounts of it to do its job is a sign that our bodies are using carbohydrate and fat energy efficiently. This can result in higher bodily energy and less proneness to fat gain. It can also reduce the odds of our cells becoming resistant to insulin and developing the cascading negative effects of that condition.
Increased insulin sensitivity results in more glycogen uptake by the body’s muscle tissue. This makes it less likely that carbohydrate calories will be taken up by fat cells – a process referred to as lypogenesis. In simpler terms, learning how to improve insulin sensitivity helps enhance body composition (muscle-to-fat ratio). Incidentally, that works in reverse as well; improved body composition can lead to better insulin sensitivity. So there’s likely a mutually reinforcing mechanism in place here that makes improved insulin sensitivity a beneficial causer and effecter in both better health and a leaner, more muscular body.
‘How to Improve Insulin Sensitivity’: Some steps
With the benefits of improved insulin sensitivity being clear, let’s go over some steps for making it happen. We’ll first cover the more proven measures. After that, I’ll list a few possible (yet unproven) ‘supplemental’ additives to these actions.Reduce High Glycemic Carbs: The tendency for cells to eventually become insensitive to insulin is likely due to the bombardment of the hormone that occurs from constantly eating high glycemic carbohydrates. Consumption of sugary and starchy foods causes the cells to be hit with too much insulin, too quickly. Over time, this repetitive blood sugar inundation takes its toll; the portals on the cell’s surface become desensitized to the insulin.
The remedy to this is to improve one’s habits of carbohydrate intake. This involves switching from primarily eating high glycemic carbs to eating more of the low glycemic type. Remember, even some carbohydrates that are considered “healthy” are often high glycemic.
Eat Protein First: I personally never eat carbohydrate foods without protein. I’m constantly surprised at how many people will eat carbs by themselves while wondering why they have trouble losing body fat. Many will eat a pastry and gulp down some fruit juice in the morning and unknowingly send their blood sugar and insulin up to stratospheric levels. Even something like a big bowl of Grape Nuts cereal, saturated with only a cup of milk as a protein source, will unnecessarily spike blood sugar and insulin. The same bowl of cereal or pastry would create a significantly slower blood sugar rise if combined with a decent serving of protein such as a bit of lean meat or some egg whites scrambled with a whole egg or two. Any lean protein will do the trick. Even better, get in the habit of consuming the serving of protein prior to eating the carb items.
Exercise Regularly: It might seem redundant to mention the benefits of exercise within a blog dedicated to bodybuilding fitness. However, even if it’s an obvious recommendation within this context, the link between exercise and improved insulin sensitivity is important to understand.
The reason regular exercise is critical to the ‘how to improve insulin sensitivity’ equation is that exercising increases the amount of a protein called GLUT4 inside muscle cells. GLUT4 is the insulin-regulated glucose transporter that works in conjunction with insulin to fill muscle tissue with glycogen. In simple terms, increasing the presence of GLUT4 within skeletal and cardiac muscle tissues helps these cells become more sensitive to insulin. An increase in this protein is one of the benefits of regular, intense exercise.
Get Enough Fiber: A healthy amount of soluble fiber in the diet has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity. This is reminiscent of the admonitions we heard from our mothers: “Eat your vegetables.” Good advice.
That said, some lists of tips on how to improve insulin sensitivity will over simplify this tip by claiming “the more fiber you get, the better your insulin sensitivity.” In contrast, I’d recommend ‘getting enough fiber’ as opposed to advising that you should definitely increase the amount. It’s possible for us to get too much fiber. Most know the negative side effects of that. A lesser-known side effect is that excessive fiber intake can flush too many essential trace minerals from the body. So make sure you get enough daily fiber, but don’t overdo it with the “more is always better” mentality.
Eliminate or Reduce High Fructose Corn Syrup: It seems to be in vogue these days among health and fitness writers to attribute nearly all of humankind’s ailments to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). You’d think this stuff is the ultimate food scourge of the world. While I won’t counter by claiming it’s not unhealthy, my opinion is that, like many things, it can be consumed in moderation without heightened health risks.
That said, if you want improved insulin sensitivity and you’ve got the sugary soda-drinking habit, this would be the first thing to eliminate. These beverages, along with many fruit juices and flavored waters, contain concentrated doses of HFCS.
Reducing your intake of HFCS obviously goes along with the first recommendation – reducing high glycemic carbohydrates, of which HFCS is definitely one. However, being aware of where this stuff gets hidden in processed food is important enough to make reducing it a worthwhile tip of its own.
‘How to Improve Insulin Sensitivity’: Supplements that might help
R-Alpha Lipoic Acid: The powerful antioxidant ‘Alpha Lipoic Acid’ has been shown to significantly improve insulin sensitivity. Among other studies, this one from the University Hospital of Endocrinology in Sofia, Bulgaria provides evidence of ALA improving insulin sensitivity among subjects with type 2 diabetes. After four weeks of ALA intake at 600 mg. (twice daily), there was no significant difference in insulin sensitivity “in terms of glucose disposal rate” between the diabetics and the control group. The R-isomer version of the product is believed to be the more bioavailable version.
Cinnamon: This spicy cooking condiment, extracted from inner tree bark, has been shown to improve fasting glucose and insulin sensitivity. Numerous studies have demonstrated this in vitro, in animals, and in humans. Researchers aren’t sure whether it’s the naturally-occurring polyphenols or chromium present in cinnamon that can create this positive effect, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that taking daily doses of cinnamon just prior to carbohydrate-rich meals might be worthwhile.
Vinegar: In this research study, done at Arizona State University, vinegar was shown to be effective in reducing post-meal glycemia and insulin resistance in subjects with varying degrees of insulin sensitivity. The experiment consisted of subjects with Type 2 diabetes, subjects with moderate insulin resistance and a control group with no insulin resistance. All three groups showed improved insulin sensitivity after taking vinegar within 60 minutes of consuming a high carbohydrate meal. Thus, a pre-meal shot of apple cider vinegar might be a worthwhile practice in one’s ‘how to improve insulin sensitivity’ repertoire.
Berberine: This plant alkaloid has demonstrated potent capabilities in increasing glucose uptake in insulin-resistant cells. A recent study suggests that berberine creates this benefit by modulating key molecules in the insulin signaling pathway. This apparently results is an insulin-sensitizing effect. Regardless of the exact mechanism of its actions, the supplemental form of this plant alkaloid might be worth considering in your “how to improve insulin sensitivity” strategy.
Fenugreek: The seeds from this plant, cultivated extensively in India, have been shown to decrease insulin resistance and improve glycemic control. In this study, it likewise demonstrated the positive effect of lowering high blood triglyceride levels, which tend to get elevated in people with Type 2 diabetes.
- Martin O. Weickert MD, Matthias Möhlig MD, Christof Schöfl MD, Ayman M. Arafat MD, Bärbel Otto MD, Hannah Viehoff, Corinna Koebnick PHD, Angela Kohl, Joachim Spranger MD and Andreas F.H. Pfeiffer, MD. ‘Cereal Fiber Improves Whole-Body Insulin Sensitivity in Overweight and Obese Women’ (American Diabetes Association Journals; April 2006 vol. 29 no. 4 775-780)
- Jacob S, Ruus P, Hermann R, Tritschler HJ, Maerker E, Renn W, Augustin HJ, Dietze GJ, Rett K. ‘Oral administration of RAC-alpha-lipoic acid modulates insulin sensitivity in patients with type-2 diabetes mellitus: a placebo-controlled pilot trial’ (Hypertension and Diabetes Research Unit, Max Grundig Clinic, Bühl and City Hospital, Baden-Baden, Germany; Aug. 1999)
- Carol S. Johnston PHD, Cindy M. Kim, MS, Amanda J. Buller, MS. ‘Vinegar Improves Insulin Sensitivity to a High-Carbohydrate Meal in Subjects With Insulin Resistance or Type 2 Diabetes ‘ (American Diabetes Association Journals; January 2004 vol. 27 no. 1 281-282)
- Liu LZ, Cheung SC, Lan LL, Ho SK, Xu HX, Chan JC, Tong PC. ‘Berberine modulates insulin signaling transduction in insulin-resistant cells’ (Department of Medicine and Therapeutics, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Prince of Wales Hospital, Shatin, N.T., Hong Kong, China; Dec. 2009)
- Gupta A, Gupta R, Lal B, ‘Effect of Trigonella foenum-graecum (fenugreek) seeds on glycaemic control and insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes mellitus: a double blind placebo controlled study.’ (The Journal of the Association of Physicians of India; 2001, 49:1057-1061)