Reversing Insulin Resistance: How to Increase Insulin Sensitivity and Prevent Diabetes Naturally

Reversing Insulin Resistance
Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Lark Health

Insulin sensitivity and insulin resistance are common topics nowadays, but why should you care? How about this: because reduced insulin sensitivity, or increased insulin resistance, causes prediabetes or diabetes in half the US adult population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That could include you.

People with insulin resistance and have, or are at high risk for developing, type 2 diabetes. For most people with prediabetes, also known as “borderline diabetes,” it is possible to reverse insulin resistance. Furthermore, it can be possible to increase insulin sensitivity and prevent diabetes naturally!

Lifestyle changes that can naturally increase insulin sensitivity include losing extra weight and getting physically active, as well as choosing foods to reverse insulin resistance and taking other steps. Lark Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) can coach you in these and other lifestyle changes through an app in your smartphone.

Almost every choice you make day and night can affect blood sugar levels, and Lark Diabetes Prevention Program can guide you in healthy decisions. This personalized coaching program uses proven methods to lower risk for type 2 diabetes. See if you are eligible below.

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The Basics of Reduced Insulin Sensitivity

Reduced insulin sensitivity is also called insulin resistance. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) explains how insulin works and what happens when insulin resistance develops.

  • Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas. It helps your body regulate blood sugar, or blood glucose levels.
  • Sensitivity describes how sensitive, or responsive, cells in your body are to insulin.
  • Reduced insulin sensitivity happens when cells in your body are not as responsive to the effects of insulin and have trouble taking up glucose from your blood.

Normal Insulin Sensitivity

To make it clearer, here are some more details on what happens with normal insulin sensitivity, as explained by Harvard School of Public Health

Many of the foods you eat contain sugars and starches, which are types of carbohydrates. Examples include bread, pasta, potatoes, cereal, sweets, and soft drinks. During digestion, your body breaks down these carbohydrates into a type of sugar called glucose. The glucose goes into your bloodstream, which temporarily raises blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels.

The glucose in your blood is carried to certain cells that use glucose for energy. Some of your cells, such as muscle, liver, and fat cells, use insulin to take up the glucose. During normal insulin sensitivity, these cells need a normal amount of insulin to take up glucose, which lets the level of glucose in your blood go back down to normal levels. 

Reduced Insulin Sensitivity

Various triggers can lead to reduced insulin sensitivity. When it happens, insulin is not as effective on cells such as your liver, muscle, and fat cells. They need more insulin just to take up the same amount of glucose. Insulin levels in your blood rise. Eventually, glucose levels may rise if your pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin to keep up with the demand. 

Reduced Insulin Sensitivity

Who Has Insulin Resistance?

Lots of people have reduced insulin sensitivity – maybe even you! You have reduced insulin sensitivity if you have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. That already includes 45% of U.S. adults, but that is not all. The truth is that insulin resistance can start to develop years or a decade before you have signs of it.

According to the CDC, you are more likely to have reduced insulin sensitivity if you:

  • Are overweight or obese
  • Are not physically active
  • Have a family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Are Hispanic American, Asian American, Native American, African American, or a Pacific Islander
  • Are an older adult

Lark DPP focuses on modifiable risk factors, or the ones you can change, by providing coaching on making healthy lifestyle choices.

Reduced Insulin Sensitivity and Health

Reduced insulin sensitivity is not just a problem because a lot of people have it. It is a problem because it can lead to serious health consequences. Prediabetes is not likely to cause many or any symptoms, but it does increase risk for diabetes, and diabetes has its own set of concerns.

  • Seventh-leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • Higher risk for heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke
  • Increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease
  • Risk of complications such as blindness and diabetic neuropathy
  • Daily (or more) blood glucose testing and probably medications

Most cases of type 2 diabetes are preventable, and your chance of preventing diabetes is higher if you try to reverse reduced insulin sensitivity early on.

Diagnosing Prediabetes and Diabetes

An insulin resistance test can be simple, quick, and life-saving. You can ask your doctor to order a test for insulin resistance at the lab where you get your regular blood tests. The three tests that are used to diagnose prediabetes and diabetes are fasting glucose, glycated hemoglobin (A1C), and oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT). These are the cutoffs, according to the NIDDK.

These tests detect insulin resistance only after it has progressed for a while and your blood sugar levels have started to rise. You might want to ask your doctor if you have risk factors for insulin resistance and should get tested.

Weight Loss and Reversing Insulin Resistance

What you eat, and how much, can have an immense impact on your insulin sensitivity. Losing extra pounds can increase insulin sensitivity and lower your risk for prediabetes and diabetes.

Gradual weight loss from small changes can be more sustainable than rapid weight loss. That means that you do not need to follow a fad diet or cut out all good-tasting foods. Instead, consider adding one or more doable steps, such as the following, into your regular routine.

  • Serve smaller portions of higher-calorie foods. That could mean ordering a small instead of regular fries or burger, or having only half a piece of cake.
  • Add more low-calorie foods. For example, stir broccoli into mac and cheese or pasta sauce so that the same size portion has fewer calories. Or, start dinner with a green salad so that you are less hungry for higher-calorie foods for the main course.
  • Choose water or decaffeinated tea or coffee instead of soft drinks, energy and sports drinks, and other sugar-sweetened beverages with calories.
  • Swap less processed foods for highly processed ones to limit added sugars and unhealthy fats. For example, choose fruit instead of desserts, or roast or broil fish or skinless chicken instead of frying and battering fish or chicken with skin.

Tracking what you eat and monitoring your weight can improve weight loss, and Lark DPP can help you do that using your smartphone.

Foods That Affect Insulin Sensitivity

Research suggests that certain foods can reduce insulin resistance.

  • Whole grains, including oatmeal, popcorn, brown rice, whole wheat bread and pasta, wheat bran, quinoa, whole-grain cereals, and bulgur.
  • Fiber, which is in plant products such as whole grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds, fruit, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils).
  • Healthy fats, including monounsaturated fats from olive oil, avocados, nuts, and peanuts.
  • Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and herring. 
  • Non-starchy vegetables, such as greens, broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, onions, tomatoes, carrots, beets, green beans, and Brussels sprouts.
  • Legumes, such as lentils, split peas, soybeans, and garbanzo, navy, black, pinto, and other beans.
  • Fresh fruit, such as berries, oranges, apples, pears, cantaloupe, and watermelon.

There are a few foods that can increase insulin resistance or risk factors or risk for developing prediabetes or diabetes. These are some foods to consider limiting or eating only occasionally.

  • Red meat, processed, and cured meats, such as ribs, steaks, ham, pepperoni, bologna, salami, hot dogs, ground beef, and luncheon meats.
  • White potatoes, such as chips, French fries, hash browns, and mashed potatoes.
  • White bread and other products made with white flour, such as bagels, pita, English muffins, croissants, muffins, and other baked goods.
  • Other refined grains and grain products, such as white rice, pasta, and crackers, and refined cereal.
  • Sugar-sweetened foods, such as cakes, pies, cookies, ice cream, candy, jam, and certain flavored foods, such as flavored oatmeal and many flavored yogurts.
  • Fried and battered foods, such as fried chicken, fried fish, onion rings, mozzarella sticks, zucchini sticks, and fried shrimp.
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Solid fats, such as butter, lard, and shortening.

Lark DPP can help you keep track of when you choose these foods, and offer suggestions for healthier alternatives.

Carbohydrates and Prediabetes

What about a low-carb diet? Some people try to improve insulin sensitivity by turning to a low-carb diet, which restricts high-carb foods such as bread and other grains and grain products, starchy vegetables, sugary foods, and even fruits and legumes. However, the jury is still out. A low-carb diet could lower your body’s demand for insulin, but there could be long-term harm from having too much protein or fat to make up for the low amount of carbohydrates.  

A smart-carb approach may be safest and healthiest. 

  • Spread your carb intake through the day, with one or two small servings per meal and snack.
  • Avoid excessive amounts of carbs at once, such as large plates of pasta, huge bagels or muffins, or meals with bread, a side of rice or potatoes, and a starchy and sugary dessert.
  • Look for high-fiber, less refined carbohydrate sources, such as whole grains, fruit, and starchy vegetables.
  • Limit refined grains and sugars.
  • Eat your carbohydrate with a source of fat and/or protein.

Daily Swaps and Sample Menus to Reverse Insulin Resistance

Where do you even start when it comes to eating to reverse insulin resistance? It can help to start with your regular food choices, and see where you can make simple swaps to have more foods that increase insulin sensitivity and fewer foods that increase insulin resistance. Be sure to add plenty of water and to check with your doctor before starting a new meal plan.

Here are more sample days on an insulin resistance diet menu with healthy carbs. Again, be sure to add plenty of water and to check with your doctor before starting a new meal plan.

Meal or Snack Sample Day 1 Food(s) Sample Day 2 Food(s)
Egg white or tofu scramble with spinach and tomatoes on a high-fiber tortilla/wrap
Shredded wheat with plain yogurt, berries, and nuts
Apple and peanut butter
Hard-boiled egg
Greek salad with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, feta, chicken breast or garbanzo beans, and vinaigrette
Peanut butter and sliced apple sandwich, baby carrots
Fat-free refried beans with melted low-fat cheddar cheese
Frozen banana slices dipped in melted unsweetened or 85% dark chocolate
Salmon with citrus salsa, steamed broccoli, and brown rice
Roast chicken served with roasted sweet potatoes, onions, and cauliflower drizzled with olive oil

Five Quick Swaps to Support Insulin Sensitivity

  • Look for heart-healthy fat sources, such as fish, olive and vegetable oils, avocados, and nuts, instead of fried foods and fatty meats.
  • Select whole grains and whole-grain products instead of refined ones, such as bread, flour, rice, cereal, pasta, and crackers.
  • Choose fish and plant-based proteins instead of red or processed meat.
  • Drink water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda, sports drinks, fruit drinks, and flavored/sweetened tea and coffee.
  • Snack on fruits and vegetables instead of chips, cookies, or French fries.

Best Exercises to Increase Insulin Sensitivity

Exercise is one of the quickest and surest ways to increase insulin sensitivity naturally. In fact, it instantly increases insulin sensitivity! The benefits last for 24 to 48 hours, so try to get in a workout at least every 1 to 2 days to keep getting the rewards.

Type of Exercise Examples How Much? Other Notes
Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (“cardio”)
Walking, low-impact aerobics, moderate cycling and swimming
30 minutes most days, or at least 150 minutes per week.
Work hard enough to be able to talk, but not sing.
High-intensity aerobic exercise (“cardio”)
Running, fast cycling, kick-boxing, basketball
75 minutes per week.
Can be used as an alternative to moderate-intensity cardio.
Resistance training
Free weights, barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands, body weight, and weight machines.
Hit each muscle group 2 to 3 times per week. Do 8 to 10 repetitions of an exercise, then repeat.
Ask a trainer about proper form, and get excited about “toning up,” not “bulking up!”
Other activities.
Yoga, tai chi, stretching.
2 to 3 times per week or more.
Lowers injury risk and risk of falls so you can keep exercising

Other Choices to Reverse Insulin Resistance

You have opportunities all day to increase insulin sensitivity naturally, and side effects can include feeling better in so many ways.

  • Get enough sleep. A single night of sleep deprivation reduces insulin sensitivity. Being chronically low on sleep, as so many adults are, can harm your health even if you are doing everything else right. Sleep deprivation, even for a single night, alters hormone levels, including raising levels of a hormone called ghrelin that makes you hungry. Insulin resistance also increases, while your ability to resist carb and sugar cravings decreases when you are short on shuteye. You can use Lark to get a handle on your sleep patterns and work on sleeping better if you are not yet getting enough.
  • Manage stress better. Some stress is good, and too much stress is unfortunately common. The effects are not just in your head; being overly stressed alters your hormones and increases insulin resistance. Learning how to manage stress can help normalize your metabolism. Meditation, exercise, and deep breathing are some ways to manage stress. You can also try walking, phoning a friend, blogging or journaling, and listening to music, for starters. See what works for you! Lark can help you recognize when you are feeling stressed and remind you of ways to try to handle it through digital therapeutics.
  • Another important way to increase insulin sensitivity is to stop sitting. At least, try not to sit for so long! Breaking up your “sedentary time” with a few minutes of light activity, such as walking or doing calf raises, can fight insulin resistance. 

Dietary Supplements

  • Cinnamon may increase the activity at insulin receptors and may help store glucose. Cinnamon appears to lower blood sugar levels in patients with diabetes.
  • Chromium is an essential mineral for proper insulin action. Deficiency causes diabetes. Chromium picolinate supplements could lower blood glucose and A1C levels in people with diabetes, but there is mixed evidence on this.
  • Fenugreek is an herb that has been used since ancient times in traditional medicine systems, including Ayurvedic medicine. It may lower cholesterol levels and increase insulin secretion by the pancreas, but it does not appear to lower A1C or blood sugar levels consistently.
  • Bitter melon may increase insulin release from the pancreas, but it does not appear to reduce insulin resistance.
  • Gymnema sylvestre is another ancient herb used in Ayurvedic medicine for purposes such as weight loss and cholesterol and diabetes management. It could lower fasting blood glucose and A1C levels slightly.
  • Green tea has caffeine and phytonutrients, including epigallocatechin gallate, that may improve insulin sensitivity. It could lower fasting blood glucose, but research is mixed, and green tea does not appear to lower A1C.
  • Vanadium is another mineral linked to proper insulin function and carbohydrate metabolism, but supplementation is not certain to be safe or effective for improving insulin sensitivity.

Always talk to your doctor before taking dietary supplements. Even natural supplements can pose health risks or interfere with medications. They are not suitable for everyone, especially if you are pregnant, are taking some medications, or have certain health conditions.

No Cost Health Kit to Lower Your Risk of Diabetes

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Medications for Insulin Resistance

Medications can be necessary to keep normal blood sugar levels in check if your insulin sensitivity decreases too much. Still, even if you have diabetes, these natural support strategies can increase insulin sensitivity. They may make your medications more effective or allow you to take lower doses (of course, never change your medication dose without talking to your doctor first). 

In most cases, it is possible to lower blood sugar or even reverse prediabetes, but it is a lot easier when you have a personal lifestyle coach like Lark in your pocket. Your Lark coach is available 24/7 through your smartphone to offer practical advice and encouragement, and to provide instant feedback when you log meals, exercise, and weight. Lowering blood sugar can feel natural as you earn celebratory badges for good choices and develop healthy habits.

Lark Diabetes Prevention Program is designed to help you lose weight and make other healthy lifestyle choices by taking it one small step at a time. Lark uses established behavior change strategies to help you turn small changes into long-term habits for success. The program is based on a proven program from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and is backed by experts in nutrition, weight loss, exercise, sleep, and stress management

Millions of Americans have health insurance that covers Lark’s Diabetes Prevention Program for eligible members, and you may be one of them! Click or tap here to find out whether you qualify. You may even get a free smart scale and Fitbit as you get started on one of the most exciting and important adventures of your life!