Insulin resistance: A holistic approach to better healthNovember 13, 2023
What causes health conditions like type II diabetes and poor blood sugar, and is there anything you can do?
Whether you’ve heard of insulin resistance or it’s still a mystery to you, it’s an important topic. While it may sound complex, understanding insulin resistance is vital to maintaining good health. Keep scrolling to find out what insulin resistance is, why it’s on the rise, and explore some holistic ways to combat it.
What is insulin resistance?
Insulin resistance is a condition in which the body’s cells become less responsive to the effects of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. Insulin plays a crucial role in regulating blood glucose (sugar) levels by helping glucose enter cells to provide them with energy. When have insulin resistance or “insulin insensitivity”, your cells don’t respond effectively to insulin - it’s as though the glucose is knocking on the door to the cell, but no one inside can hear it. With glucose being left outside in the bloodstream, the body compensates by producing more insulin to help move the glucose into the cells. This leads to an increase in blood glucose and insulin levels in the bloodstream.
Why is insulin resistance on the rise?
Like so many health issues, diet and lifestyle are major contributors to the development of insulin resistance.
- Sedentary lifestyle: A lack of physical activity can lead to weight gain and reduce the body’s ability to use glucose and insulin efficiently.
- Diet: The foods available to us these days is very different to what we’ve evolved to eat - processed foods, sugar-laden meals and beverages, unhealthy fats (especially of the hydrogenated variety), and frequent snacking can all lead to insulin resistance.
- Stress: too much of the stress hormone cortisol can impair the normal effects of insulin, leading to insulin resistance.1
- Genetics: Many people find that insulin resistance and type II diabetes run in their family. If this is the case, there is a genetic predisposition to, and a higher likelihood of, insulin resistance developing.
- Poor sleep: A lack of restful sleep or regular disruptions to normal sleep patterns can upset hormonal balance, contributing to insulin resistance.
IR and weight gain
When it comes to unexplained weight gain, insulin resistance could be a major culprit. As a hormonal condition, insulin insensitivity can contribute to increased fat accumulation despite your best efforts: this is because insulin’s primary job is to store excess glucose as fat. Losing weight is far more difficult with insulin resistance because the body has adapted to store glucose as fat, rather than use it for energy. Not only does it become harder to lose weight with insulin resistance, but it becomes much easier to gain it too.
Other signs and symptoms of insulin resistance may include:
- Increased belly fat
- Fatigue (especially after eating)
- Sugar cravings
- Fatty liver
- Hair loss
- Blurry vision
- Increased thirst
- Excessive urination
Insulin resistance and oxidative stress
Insulin doesn’t just have an impact on weight; it can also cause oxidative damage to the cells and organs in the body. Oxidative damage occurs when there’s an imbalance between the production of harmful molecules known as “free radicals” and the body’s ability to neutralise them with antioxidants. Insulin resistance can promote an imbalance by causing increased levels of free radicals inside the cells. These free radicals can then damage our DNA, proteins, and fats, leading to inflammation, premature aging, and increasing the risk of chronic disease.2 By addressing insulin resistance through a healthy diet and lifestyle practices, we can help to reduce oxidative damage and prevent disease.
Holistic ways to combat insulin resistance
When a condition like insulin resistance comes along, it can be easy to despair - but the upshot is that as a condition caused by diet and lifestyle, a few changes to your daily habits can have huge positive effects - and quickly!
- Healthy diet: Change the look of your plate by making sure you have a source (or at least two for vegans and vegetarians) of protein, healthy fat from avocado, nuts, seeds, or olive oil, plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables (try to “eat the rainbow” every day). Cut down or out processed, packaged foods, sugary drinks and snacks and anything with the word ‘hydrogenated’ attached to it.
- Regular exercise: What lifestyle change would be complete without daily movement? Both aerobic and strength-based exercise are beneficial, try a mix of two days of strength or bodyweight training, a daily 30-minute walk, a yoga or pilates class - or dust off your old bike or boxing gloves for something completely new and inspiring. Find out more about how to optimise your workout routine here.
- Stress management: Reducing elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol will improve your insulin response over time. A small amount of stress is nothing to worry about, but if you’re finding the stress creeping up and impacting your mood, sleep, or relationships, then it’s time to draw on some resources. Counselling, meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, positive visualisation, or a walk in nature are some of the tried and tested methods for managing stress.
- Restful sleep: Managing stress can have the most positive impact on your sleep, but if you’re still struggling, try a calming herbal bedtime tea, cut back on your caffeine consumption, put screens away at least 90 minutes before bed to support healthy hormone production, and try a guided meditation for sleep.
- Consider a supplement: There’s no magic cure for insulin resistance, and supplements are always best used in conjunction with a healthy diet and lifestyle. That being said, it can help to use targeted supplements to support a healthy blood glucose and insulin response as part of a holistic approach. Antioxidant-rich food-based supplements can be a helpful tool in combating the damaging effects of sugar and free radical accumulation, while omega-3 fats can help to reduce inflammation caused by free radicals.
With the right diet and lifestyle changes, including a healthy diet, regular exercise, stress management, adequate sleep, and targeted supplements, you can combat insulin resistance naturally. When it comes to managing your risk of insulin resistance, it’s always advisable to consult with a healthcare professional first for personalised guidance.
- Geer, E.B., Islam, J. & Buettner, C. (2014). Mechanisms of glucocorticoid-induced insulin resistance. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Arm, 43(1): 75-102. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3942672/
- Lobo, V., Patil, A., Phatak, A. & Chandra, N. (2010). Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacogn Rev, 4(8): 118-126. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249911/