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As the name implies, insulin resistance occurs when our cells become “resistant” to the actions of insulin. Insulin knocks on the cell doors, but nobody answers. Why cells become resistant to insulin isn’t completely understood, although obesity, genetic factors, an unhealthy diet, and lack of physical activity likely factor into the mix.
We do know that insulin resistance leads to increased blood sugar levels and cells can’t get needed energy. This may cause fatigue in the short run and multiple health problems in the long run.
In response to resistance, the pancreas pumps out more insulin. The extra insulin bangs on cells’ doors a little louder than before, and glucose is once again allowed inside to provide cellular energy.
After a time, cells develop resistance to higher insulin levels, so the pancreas produces even more. The cycle continues until at some point, the pancreas simply cannot produce enough insulin to overcome resistance, and type 2 diabetes develops.
An insulin resistance diagnosis is a great wake up call, because the condition is largely reversible. Type 2 diabetes is more difficult to reverse, and some damage due to type 2 diabetes may not be reversible at all. Working with your healthcare provider and making smart lifestyle choices will put you on the path to better health now and in the future.
Focus on family first. If you have a family history of insulin resistance or diabetes, ask your doctor about being tested for these conditions. This involves checking your blood levels of glucose, insulin, and other hormones, or a glucose challenge test, in which you drink a sugar solution and your blood glucose levels are measured several times over the next few hours.
Watch the waist. A waist circumference of greater than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women is considered high risk and increases the likelihood of developing insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease.
Move it and lose it. Ideally, you can use exercise and weight loss to prevent or manage insulin resistance. Each one improves insulin sensitivity on its own, but together they are a powerful way to better health. Regardless of how you lose weight, if you have extra pounds to spare, shedding them will improve insulin sensitivity and the simple act of moving your body more, regardless of weight, will decrease insulin resistance. A 20 minute walk on your lunch break, regularly taking the stairs, walking to the corner store instead of driving, or riding bikes with your kids all count.
Ask your doctor about dietary supplements that may help manage insulin resistance. These may include alpha lipoic acid, chromium, fenugreek, glucomannan, all types of fiber, resveratrol, psyllium, gymnema, and berberine—each has shown promise for improving insulin sensitivity in people with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes.
If you want to try supplements, check with your doctor or another knowledgeable healthcare provider before adding any into your self-care program. This is especially true if you take medication for any condition.
Sack simple carbs. Cutting back on simple carbohydrates—white breads and sugary cereals, pasta, fruit juice, energy drinks, regular soda, candy, cake, donuts, cookies, and even large amounts of fruit and dried fruit—can improve insulin resistance.
Home in on healthy fat. Fats found in nuts, seeds, fish and seafood, olive oil, avocados, and sesame and sunflower oils are an important part of an insulin-balancing diet. Replacing simple carbs with healthy fats helps level blood sugar and insulin levels. Try a small piece of fruit and a handful of nuts for a healthy snack, for example, instead of a large piece of fruit alone.
Power up with protein. Replacing simple carbohydrates with protein is another way to better balance blood sugar and insulin levels. Lean protein, such as chicken, fish, egg whites, beans, chickpeas, lentils, soy products, and lean beef are good options.
(Centers for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/Index.html, accessed May 20 2014; American Heart Association http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/Body-Composition-Tests_UCM_305883_Article.jsp, accessed May 20 2014)
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.