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April 08, 2021 / Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN

Insulin Resistance: What It Means & How to Reverse It Naturally

Woman in a red shirt using a glucometer at home to check if she needs insulin.

Insulin resistance can have an impact on your overall health and wellness. Insulin is a hormone released by the pancreas to keep blood sugars balanced. Insulin resistance is when cells are resistant to insulin, leaving sugars to remain in the bloodstream. Insulin resistance is not something you want to ignore - it can lead to elevated blood sugar levels, hypertension, heart disease, prediabetes, and type 2 diabetes. But don’t worry - just because you may have insulin resistance doesn’t automatically mean you’ll end up developing type 2 diabetes. Lifestyle and dietary changes can help prevent type 2 diabetes and reverse insulin resistance.

Here you’ll learn what insulin resistance is, what causes it, symptoms and complications, and how to reverse it and improve insulin sensitivity.

What Is Insulin Resistance?

Your pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream to help cells absorb glucose so that it can be used for energy. It also stores glucose in the liver, fat, and muscles as glycogen for later use.

Insulin resistance occurs when cells are no longer sensitive to insulin, therefore resistant to it, and blood sugars remain in the bloodstream instead of being used for energy. To keep blood sugars stable, your pancreas responds by making more insulin. If the pancreas can’t keep up, blood sugars may rise and can lead to type 2 diabetes and other chronic health conditions.

How do you develop insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance can be caused by a number of factors. The most common causes include:

Symptoms of insulin resistance

Initially, you may not have noticeable symptoms of insulin resistance because your pancreas counteracts the effects by releasing more insulin. Eventually, as it worsens, the first sign of insulin resistance is usually high blood sugar levels.

As high blood sugar levels continue, you may experience additional symptoms, such as:

How Long Does It Take for Insulin Resistance to Reverse?

The amount of time it takes to reverse insulin resistance is very individual - it depends on how far it has progressed and the lifestyle changes you implement. Also, when the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin for your body, there’s a chance that insulin resistance may no longer be able to be reversed. The sooner you can address your insulin resistance, the sooner you can take steps to reverse it. Research shows that for some people who are newly experiencing insulin resistance, it may take about six weeks to see improvement after making healthy changes.

How to Reverse Insulin Resistance Naturally

If you have insulin resistance and/or prediabetes, you might be feeling overwhelmed and confused about what to do - that’s absolutely normal. Making small, sustainable changes to your diet and lifestyle can help reverse insulin resistance and prevent or delay type 2 diabetes. Here are 10 tips for improving insulin sensitivity and reversing insulin resistance.

Tip for reversal #1: Enjoy a diet rich in whole plant foods

If you’re wondering how to reverse insulin resistance naturally, start by looking at your diet and ask yourself if you’re eating enough plants. Eating a diet rich in whole foods and a variety of plants has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity and improve insulin resistance. Studies show that whole-food plant-based diets help prevent and manage type 2 diabetes and improve insulin resistance because they increase fiber and nutrient intake, decrease saturated fat intake, are high in antioxidants, support healthy food-microbiome interactions, and help promote a healthy weight. If you’re overwhelmed with where to start, this prediabetes diet plan can help you out.

Tip for reversal #2: Get active

Did you know that if you’re someone with insulin resistance, prediabetes, or diabetes, fitting exercise into a busy schedule can have the potential to improve your health? Studies show that daily exercise can improve insulin resistance in people with diabetes. And it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. In fact, even modest exercise can be an effective strategy for not only improving insulin resistance but overall quality of life and well-being as well. The key to adopting a consistent exercise routine is to find a form of movement that you enjoy: easy yoga flow, walking, running, cycling, dance, at-home HIIT workout, martial arts - whatever it is, aim to make it a healthy, consistent habit!

Tip for reversal #3: Lower your stress levels

Chronic stress may contribute to the development of insulin resistance. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology examined the effects of chronic stress in over 700 workers and found that high levels of stress were associated with higher cortisol and insulin resistance. This makes sense since cortisol is our main stress hormone and activates the “fight-or-flight” response in times of stress. It also elevates blood sugars and insulin in the body.

Find ways to alleviate stress and help manage your stress levels, whether that’s exercise, yoga, meditation, mindfulness exercises, or deep breathing.

Tip for reversal #4: Prioritize a good night’s sleep

Sleep affects so many aspects of our health that it’s no surprise it has an impact on insulin resistance. Research shows that inadequate sleep is linked with elevated blood sugars, insulin levels, A1C, and insulin resistance. Also, in those with type 2 diabetes, poor sleep can contribute to worsened blood sugar control. To counteract these effects, aim for seven to eight hours of sleep daily.

Tip for reversal #5: Increase your soluble fiber intake

Many people don’t eat the recommended amount of fiber - about 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. If you think you’re one of those people, here’s a reason for you to up your fiber intake: it can help reverse insulin resistance naturally. A 2019 study found that increasing low fiber intake (both soluble and insoluble) to the recommended amounts led to reduced fasting blood sugars, fasting insulin, and insulin resistance. Soluble fiber slows down digestion by dissolving in water and forming a gel. This helps stabilize blood sugars and improves insulin sensitivity. To benefit from these blood sugar-friendly effects, eat more soluble fiber-rich foods like oats, carrots, apples, sweet potatoes, beans, and barley.

Tip for reversal #6: Eat fewer carbohydrates

An unbalanced diet high in carbohydrates, especially if you’re eating a lot of ultra-processed foods, can cause your blood sugar to spike, signaling for your body to release more insulin. When you’re insulin resistant, your body doesn’t respond to insulin effectively and sugars remain in your bloodstream rather than being released to cells for energy.

If you’re currently eating an especially high-carbohydrate diet, substituting some of those carbs with healthy fats and lean proteins can improve insulin sensitivity. In a 2016 study, researchers found that a low-carbohydrate diet reduced evening insulin resistance by 37% without exercise compared to a high-carbohydrate diet.

Tip for reversal #7: Avoid added sugars

One step you can take to improve insulin resistance is to reduce your intake of added sugars. When comparing the difference between natural sugars vs added sugars, natural sugars are found naturally in foods, such as in fruits, vegetables, and milk. Whereas foods with added sugars have had sugar or sweetener added to them. Foods that can contain added sugars include sodas, juice, candy, bread, flavored yogurts, pastries, cereals, and sauces. Added sugars are often found in the form of table sugar (also known as sucrose) or high fructose corn syrup. These both contain a large amount of fructose, and research has shown that high intakes of fructose can lead to increased insulin resistance. To become more aware of your added sugar intake, start reading nutrition labels - all packaged foods now include added sugar amounts in the labels.

Tip for reversal #8: Choose your fats wisely

All fats are not created equal, and certain fats can either improve or worsen insulin resistance. Choosing the right fats can make a difference. A review published in Clinical Nutrition found that a diet high in saturated fats increases insulin resistance, whereas monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats improve insulin resistance. Research also suggests that omega-3 fatty acids counteract insulin resistance due to their anti-inflammatory properties. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout are particularly high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Tip for reversal #9: Incorporate more protein into your diet

You might not be surprised to hear that eating more protein can help reverse insulin resistance.

A 2020 analysis of multiple studies found that a high-protein diet can lower insulin resistance levels in people with type 2 diabetes, as well as lowering triglycerides and LDL cholesterol levels. Incorporating more protein with your meals can help keep your blood sugars stable, avoiding any blood sugar spikes that can contribute to insulin resistance. If you’re looking for some inspiration for a healthy protein-rich meal, don’t hesitate to try this chicken chimichurri or salmon en papillote with roasted fennel.

Tip for reversal #10: Reap the benefits of green tea

Pouring yourself a cup of green tea may also help reverse insulin resistance naturally. A 2013 analysis of 17 studies found that green tea consumption was linked with reduced fasting blood sugar, A1C, and fasting insulin levels. Green tea contains antioxidants called catechins that can help reduce inflammation in the body and improve insulin sensitivity.

Drinking green tea can also help naturally reduce cortisol, which can help with insulin sensitivity by lowering your stress levels (which we talked about earlier). While green tea alone isn’t enough to reverse insulin resistance, it can certainly help along with other lifestyle interventions.

What Foods Are Good for Insulin Resistance?

Eating foods with a low glycemic load can help you maintain stable blood sugars and prevent blood sugar spikes. Here are several food options that can help improve insulin resistance:

The Takeaway

Making the small positive changes to your diet and lifestyle suggested above can not only help reverse insulin resistance, but can also promote your overall health, wellness, and quality of life. PlateJoy can help support your healthy lifestyle goals by providing meal planning services, grocery lists, and healthy recipes. Choose the diabetic meal plans that best suit your needs and start reaping the benefits of better blood sugar control.

Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN
Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant @ Alena Menko Nutrition

Alena Kharlamenko is the founder of Alena Menko Nutrition, a food and nutrition blog where she publishes healthful, plant-forward recipes and makes nutrition approachable with easily digestible information. She’s also passionate about gut health and is a Monash FODMAP-Trained Dietitian. When she's not cooking up a storm in the kitchen or behind her computer, she can be found exploring the vast culinary scene of NYC, traveling around the world, or hiking and spending time in nature. You can find Alena on Instagram @thebalancedbite or on Facebook @AlenaMenkoNutrition.

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