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How to Reverse Insulin Resistance

It may not be top-of-mind sexy, but insulin resistance is a real condition that impacts millions of Americans...

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Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • When cells become insulin resistant, glucose stays in the bloodstream—this can lead to high blood sugar.
  • Insulin resistance can result from lifestyle choices, specific disorders, and steroid use.
  • Reverse insulin resistance through exercise, losing belly fat, and eating in a way that supports healthy metabolic function.

If you were asked to give your number-one health goal, what would it be? Lose 20 pounds. Climb to the top of Mt. Everest. Stay alive in a zombie apocalypse. The answer probably wouldn’t be to reverse insulin resistance.

It may not be top-of-mind sexy, but insulin resistance is a real condition that impacts millions of Americans and hundreds of millions worldwide. In order to burn enough stored fat to lose 20 pounds and keep it off, build the endurance to withstand the rigor of mountain climbing, slay brain-eating monsters, and more, your body’s cells need to create energy. A piece of the energy creation and storage system in the body depends on insulin.

Your body produces insulin to help keep your blood sugar at stable levels. Eating or drinking, exercising, reacting to stress, and even the process of waking up in the morning trigger the beta cells in the pancreas to release insulin to keep blood glucose in check.

When your body doesn’t respond to insulin the way it should, your cells can’t receive the glucose from your blood that they need to produce energy. This is known as insulin resistance.

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What Happens if You’re Insulin Resistant?

For several reasons (see below), your cells may stop responding to insulin as well as they should. Instead of being sensitive to the effects of insulin—this is the goal for good metabolic health—your cells become resistant to the effects of insulin.

Picture a peckish, petulant toddler who skipped her nap to go shopping with her mom. Despite her sippy cup of juice and the gummy fruit snacks her mom shoves into her hands to keep her quiet, the little girl (let’s call her Patty, crabby Patty) whines louder. She remains insensitive to her mom’s rushing around the store and the annoyed stares of other shoppers and resists the sugary treats mom thrusts at her.

When cells become insulin resistant, glucose stays in the bloodstream—this can lead to high blood sugar. Your pancreas will try to fight the resistance by releasing more insulin (think of Patty’s mom giving Patty different treats to pacify her) to bring down your blood sugar. 

Over time, as insulin resistance worsens, extra insulin won’t make up for your cells’ weak response. Your blood sugar will remain chronically high, a condition known as hyperglycemia, and can leave you vulnerable to complications, such as:

<ul role="list"><li>High cholesterol</li><li>Metabolic syndrome<sup>1</sup></li><li>High blood pressure</li><li>Prediabetes or type 2 diabetes</li><li>Coronary artery disease</li><li>Stroke</li><li>Poor blood circulation<sup>2</sup></li></ul>

Causes of Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance can result from lifestyle choices, specific disorders, and steroid use, including:

Chronic stress: Chronic oxidative stress results in weakened insulin response. High glucose can lead to increased production of reactive oxygen species (a fancy way of saying chemical molecules that may have villainous intent). This can make it harder for your cells to convert the glucose stored in your muscles and fat tissue into energy. You don’t want this for aesthetic reasons, but worse, over time, this can lead to B-cell failure in the pancreas, glucose intolerance, and diabetes<sup>3</sup>.  

Being overweight or obese, particularly apple-shaped bodies: The relationship between obesity and insulin resistance4sup>4</sup> is seen across all ethnic groups and a wide range of body weights, as this research review notes. Carry excess fat around your waistline compared to your bum and you could be at higher risk for insulin resistance<sup>5</sup>, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. 

Too much sitting, not enough movement: A sedentary lifestyle with little physical activity aside from walking from your car to a building and back is associated with insulin resistance, increased blood pressure, high HDL cholesterol levels<sup>6</sup>, and impaired function of the walls of blood vessels. 

Genetics: Your ethnicity could make you more prone to insulin resistance. One study suggests that south Asian and Aboriginal people<sup>7</sup> display a greater increase in insulin resistance than some other groups. Blacks and Hispanics<sup>8</sup> can also be prone to increased insulin resistance. Those who have family members with diabetes could be more prone to developing insulin resistance. 

Diet of mostly refined carbs, added sugar, and processed foods: A study that reviewed the diets of 350 children showed that excessive glucose, fructose (sugar in fruit and honey), and sucrose (cane sugar) can lead to blood sugar imbalance and insulin resistance<sup>9</sup>. Another study links insulin resistance to chronic inflammation and the release of saturated fatty acids<sup>10</sup> into the blood from the storage of excess saturated fats. To be clear, the main source of saturated fats in modern diets: processed foods<sup>11</sup>. Eat a diet rich in whole foods, plants, and low in sugar and ultra-processed packaged goods. 

Steroids taken over time: Sex steroids<sup>12</sup> and pharmaceutical steroids<sup>13</sup> can impair normal insulin sensitivity.  

Smoking: Nicotine can induce insulin resistance; this applies to smokers and those exposed consistently to secondhand smoke. One study found that cigarette smokers were less sensitive to insulin<sup>14</sup> compared to the control group, but their sensitivity increased one to two weeks after they quit smoking.  

Polycystic ovary syndrome: Women with polycystic ovary syndrome—a hormonal disorder that causes enlarged ovaries with small cysts—are highly insulin resistant<sup>15</sup>.  

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: A common chronic liver disorder, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is associated with insulin resistance<sup>16</sup>, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

Can Insulin Resistance Be Reversed?

A resounding yes—insulin resistance can be reversed. Sharpen your zombie-slaying swords!

As this research review suggests, insulin resistance can simply be the result of extra energy<sup>17</sup> in the cells over many years. To reverse the condition, burn through the stored energy in the cells. Then, embrace a lifestyle that’s supportive of preventing insulin resistance.

How to get a jump on reversing insulin resistance:

<ul role="list"><li>Move your body for at least 30 minutes most days. Exercise—any type, intensity, and duration—increases your insulin sensitivity and helps stabilize your glucose even after you’ve stopped exercising. </li><li>Trim down, especially if you carry excess fat around your waist. If you carry excess weight, particularly in your abdominal area, shedding weight can help improve your insulin sensitivity<sup>18</sup> and reduce the risk of heart disease. </li><li>Follow an eating plan that reverses insulin resistance and prevents it from coming back. Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” applies with one edit, “Eat whole foods, not too much, mostly plants.”</li></ul>

Reverse Insulin Resistance Through Diet

Include polyphenol-, epicatechin-, and anthocyanin-containing foods in your diet. This is a fancy way to say follow mom’s advice: Eat your fruits and veggies. A study shows beneficial results on insulin resistance<sup>19</sup> from the antioxidants and micronutrients in fruits, vegetables, and spices. All those vibrant colors and fragrant aromas are nature’s way of attracting you to eat what’s good for you. 

You can find polyphenols in numerous fruits and vegetables, including:

  • Berries
  • Apricots
  • Oranges
  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Spinach
  • Onions
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Asparagus
  • Nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts, flaxseed 
  • Spices such as saffron, cloves, star anise, cumin, and cinnamon 

Epicatechin concentrations are high in:

  • Apples 
  • Blackberries
  • Broad beans
  • Cherries
  • Black grapes
  • Pears
  • Raspberries
  • Dark chocolate (we saved the best for last. Are you dancing too?)

Foods rich in anthocyanins include:

  • Eggplant 
  • Black currants
  • Blackberries 
  • Blueberries
  • Purple cabbage
  • Cranberries
  • Cherries

Prioritize low-glycemic foods in appropriate portions. Low-glycemic nutrition plans can help increase body fat loss and reduce cardiovascular disease risk<sup>20</sup>. If you do eat high-glycemic foods or drinks, plan to go for a brisk 30-minute walk before or within an hour after you enjoy them. If you’re fit enough, you can also do a shorter bout of high-intensity cardio, resistance training, indoor rock climbing, or a few runs of the zombie-dodging obstacle course you made in the backyard.

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About the Author

Sabrina has more than 20 years of experience writing, editing, and leading content teams in health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness. She is the former managing editor at MyFitnessPal.
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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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