Six Ways to Naturally Reduce Insulin Resistance
*Editor’s Note: The content of this piece reflects the strategies that have worked for the author in her type 1 diabetes management. Beyond Type 1 recognizes that this is advice based on experience rather than peer-reviewed science + that everyone is different when it comes to type 1.
For people with type 1 diabetes, we face what seems like millions of decisions a day that will have some kind of effect on our blood glucose levels. I know that when my blood glucose levels (BGLs) are stable or when my carb counting is on point, I feel like I’ve won the type 1 diabetes (T1D) lotto. I’ve spent the past four years since my diagnosis in 2012, experimenting with different methods to stabilizing my numbers without relying primarily on insulin. My motivation for aggressively seeking out new tips and tricks is simply as a means to avoid the way I feel after my numbers have been on a rollercoaster.
The biggest change for me since being diagnosed has been battling fatigue, which is usually a direct result of high or low blood sugar levels, or extreme fluctuation between the two. My goal has been mitigating the frequency of erratic levels and avoiding insulin resistance, which is when our bodies reject insulin, causing a rise in blood sugar. This is the feeling I dread most—that sludgy feeling that leaves me completely lifeless. I often describe the feeling of high blood sugar as a slow motion, out-of-body experience as two concrete walls are closing in against my head, followed by brain fog. Insulin resistance causes poor circulation, headaches, low energy, high blood sugar levels, weight gain, lack of concentration and weakness. Not one of these sounds fun, right? Here are six ways I’ve learned that assist in either avoiding or reducing the likelihood of insulin resistance from striking.
This one is a no-brainer. However, I’ve seen too many T1D’s act surprised or puzzled when their numbers are through the roof after they’ve binged on pizza, pasta and desserts. As the saying goes, “everything in moderation”. This is so true, especially when it comes to food & nutrition. A rule of thumb is to approach your diet with a lifestyle perspective, choosing and incorporating foods into your diet that will benefit your overall wellness and deliver optimal health results in the long run. If we’re focusing solely on foods that will aid in fighting insulin resistance, here are some basics to follow:
- Avoid the obvious: refined grains/wheat. These carb-dense foods lead to intestinal inflammation which leads to increased cortisol levels in the gut, resulting in spiked blood sugar. Some of the infamous culprits are breads, pastries, crackers and pastas. When my body is fighting to get my BGLs down, it’s usually after I’ve indulged in something that falls within one of these food groups.
- Strive to eat diet that is more on “Paleo-ish.” Paleo is basically a low-carb/high-protein diet that promotes the intake of all natural foods. I’ve heard a rule of Paleo that has stuck with me “If it has a heartbeat or grows from the ground, eat it and lots of it. If it comes out of a box, throw it out.” This is an extreme approach, but is a guideline us T1D’s should follow to prevent out of control BGLs. The basics of Paleo (notice I didn’t use the word diet. Paleo is a lifestyle, not a short-term fad diet) encourages you to eat meats, fish, eggs, nuts and being more selective with fruits and healthy fats & oils. My favorite choices for lowering BGLs are the following: avocados, dark berries, broccoli, green beans and cauliflower. For me, it is easier to focus on the foods to eliminate: sugar, dairy, high fructose corn syrup (found in many sodas, juices, pastries, ice cream, etc.), trans fats and highly processed foods. By keeping Paleo in mind when going to the grocery store, your body and BGLs will thank you.
- Avoid Inflammatory Foods! As mentioned above, carbs and highly processed foods inflame our stomachs and cause added strain on our bodies, therefore making it difficult for insulin to do its job. Foods that cause inflammation include: trans fats (think processed foods found in boxes and packages), sugar, gluten, fast food, alcohol, vegetable oil, dairy and MSG. Try moving away from these foods and try adding these kinds of foods to fight inflammation: leafy green vegetables, blueberries, fish, coconut oil and nuts.
- Eat out less and try preparing your food more often. You are your own health advocate and now you can be your own personal nutritionist and chef. I mean, come on, us T1Ds already have impressive resumes, being our own doctors, personal trainers and life coaches. Why not add a chef to the mix? When we cook for ourselves, we know exactly what our food contains in terms of carbs, sugar, fiber, ingredients and so on. We can control our own portions and add our own twists and alternatives that fit our needs.
Make it your own
There are tons of recipes out there, many of which claim to be “healthy” yet are loaded with calories, carbs and mystery ingredients. Yes, they may be tempting, but you can save yourself a night of sky-high BGLs by finding alternative ways to create your own version of your favorite cravings. For example, I will find a recipe online or on Pinterest and scope out the ingredients. Most of the time, it is a recipe that is not so T1D-friendly. I will then research for healthier versions of it and look for gluten-free options, dairy-free, Paleo, etc. Once I narrow it down, then I return to the ingredients and see if there are any areas that I can swap out for healthier alternatives. Trust me, the little things can make a huge difference!
For example, I only cook with coconut oil and bake with coconut sugar now (as opposed to traditional butter, sugar and brown sugar). Not only is coconut oil enriched in nutrients, but it is a better fuel source than sugar (plus it tastes better than butter and plain sugar). I’ve also found many recipes to swap flour for almond flour or coconut flour, brown sugar for coconut sugar, whole milk for unsweetened almond milk and sugar/honey for stevia (only occasionally will I sweeten things with artificial sweeteners). I also like to flavor my foods with natural herbs and spices such as lemon, rosemary and cinnamon. For example, this morning I had a piece of Ezekiel Toast with Cinnamon & Stevia and it was delicious. Plus, my BGLs were literally unaffected.
One of my comfort foods (pre-diabetic days) was lasagna. After thorough research, I’ve found many healthy alternatives that are just as tasty. Squash has been a lifesaver in the kitchen and I’ve made endless dishes using spaghetti squash as my healthy alternative to pasta. I’ve found T1D-friendly dishes such as Paleo Lasagna Bake, Baked Spaghetti, Paleo Pizza Casserole and so on. Every time I’ve eaten one of these dishes, I leave the dinner table full and happy because I know I won’t be worried about a delayed high that I would have otherwise experienced had I gone with the “real version.” I’ve used this same approach to other favorite foods of mine like chilis, soups and even desserts and have successfully avoided insulin resistance. Some of my favorite alternative desserts include Paleo chocolate chip cookies, no-bake coconut drop cookies, Paleo mug cakes and recently, Halo Top ice cream. I don’t indulge much in desserts, but when I do I always find healthier alternatives. It’s always worth it!
Another no-brainer here. However, exercise is not the thing most T1Ds are jumping up and down about when faced with insulin resistance. Our natural instinct is to treat it with more insulin or curl up into a ball and nap it out, hoping for a more favorable reading when we wake up. Just the other day, I was battling my own insulin resistance. Being a female, my menstrual cycle throws everything off and causes a major upswing in my numbers. Sometimes, no matter how much insulin or how well I eat, the numbers won’t budge. I decided to go on a walk with my husband on some nearby trails to help with my insulin resistance. Sure enough, after about 30 minutes I saw a gradual decline. Finally! I didn’t do anything extreme but worked through the laziness I was feeling prior to the walk. The worst part is just getting your shoes on and starting—I swear it is 99 percent mental! Once I got 10 minutes into the walk, I was fine. It was nice to get fresh air and moving around helped tremendously.
Other forms of exercise I turn to when faced with insulin resistance include light weight lifting, hiking, or yoga. When I’m not experiencing insulin resistance and just looking to keep my BGLs stable throughout the week I turn to combined training—a mix of aerobic and resistance training, not just cardio. Since I started CrossFit four months ago, I haven’t experienced a single low. My Dexcom G5 Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) is my best friend for monitoring this. For every workout, I can see where my numbers trend for the duration of my workouts. Prior to CrossFit, I was experiencing very frequent lows, which I believe was a result of long cardio workouts that were aerobic and endurance-based. The combo of movements in CrossFit, which incorporates both resistance and cardio training, has been the perfect remedy to spotty BGLs.
For those of you who are crunched for time like me, I find small opportunities in the day to get my BGLs down. That might look like talking a break from sitting at your desk and going for a brisk walk or doing a quick yoga session at home (there are tons of tutorials online, on YouTube or TV). For me, laziness only leads to more sluggishness and uncooperative BGLs, so get moving!
You can do yourself the biggest favor by avoiding soda and sugary drinks at all costs. There are no ways around that one! Sugary fluids contain nothing but artificial ingredients and may be the biggest sugar crook in my mind. They deliver zero health benefits and only lead to rapid blood sugar spikes, entering the bloodstream quickly and aggressively. Watch out for other drinks that have hidden sugars commonly found in our favorite coffees, teas and alcoholic beverages. Do your body some good and hydrate with tons of water. I recently downloaded a water app called WaterMinder and it reminds me to drink my water weight in ounces throughout the day. Sugary drinks will leave you sluggish and dehydrated, causing even more fuss with your T1D management. By hydrating throughout the day, your BGLs should gradually come down and leave you more alert and energized. I stick to the basics—water, tea and black coffee to leave insulin resistance at the door.
When I need to get my veggies in, I drink them! Juicing is one of the best ways I’ve discovered to combat insulin resistance and maintain overall controlled blood sugar. I stick to mainly greens and opt for one piece of fruit like a pear or apple when I want to add sweetness (Be careful with store bought and pre-filled juices as many are loaded with sugar). If you juice yourself, you can avoid the overloaded sugar and customize your own. My favorites include kale, Swiss chard, beats, ginger, turmeric, celery and carrots. There are TONS of health benefits with juicing, but controlled BGLs are one of the top in my opinion. I try to juice once a day and since I’ve started doing it, I’ve seen tighter numbers, a lowered A1C and less insulin resistance.
Graze, don’t indulge!
Graze don’t indulge! I’m not bringing any kind of earth-shattering news with this advice, but it is so true! Instead of overindulging in three large meals a day, try to aim for three portion-controlled meals and healthy snacks in between. When making a run to the grocery store, find healthy snacks to keep around the house or at the office. If you don’t buy junk, you won’t be tempted to eat it! It’s as simple as that. Some of my favorite snacks include pistachios, almonds, veggies and protein bars. I also love making protein shakes. I’ve made them so good they taste like milkshakes! They keep me full until the next meal and I also make sure they are loaded with the best supplements like protein powder and collagen. That way, when it’s time for dinner I’m not stuffing my face after spending the entire afternoon HANGRY (Hungry + Angry).
Lastly, I’d suggest eating earlier in the evening to avoid late night blood sugar spikes when you’re trying to sleep. Late night eating and snacking not only causes weight gain, but it throws your metabolism off. I try to eat early in the evening after work. If I’m hungry before bed, I will drink tea to curb my appetite or choose a healthy snack that won’t cause a major spike like string cheese, an apple and peanut butter, or a handful of almonds.
Doesn’t it seem like diabetes proves to be most inconvenient during some of life’s best moments? To be honest, I often dread going to certain outings or celebrations where food is the focal point. 99 percent of the time, these celebratory foods are unhealthy, high carb and certainly not T1D-friendly. It’s always that awkward moment when someone asks, “Can you eat that?” or “Well, here’s a salad … maybe you can have this” or “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were coming or else I would have made XYZ…” To avoid all this nonsense, I’ve learned that it is best to plan ahead for these times by mitigating the likelihood of insulin resistance from stealing the show. Here’s what it may look like:
- Movies – The movie theater is notorious for junk food and indulgence. Instead of messing with the gallons of popcorn butter and sugary candy, I pack my own snacks ahead of time. I usually stop off at a place like Whole Foods and get flavored sparkling water, cocoa coconut chips, a protein bar or smart popcorn.
- Potlucks, Parties & Celebrations – Sometimes this is unavoidable. Birthdays, holidays, office parties and so on are marked by a buffet of bad foods. I’ve learned to offer to bring a few items that I know I am able to eat (and other healthy peeps will appreciate this too). Sadly, I’ve been to too many parties, where the veggie tray is my only option. Or I load up on the ONE thing I know I can eat. I’m sure you other T1Ds can relate.
- Theme Parks & Sporting Events – Disneyland is one of my favorite places. However, it hasn’t always been the “happiest place on earth” when my food options are limited. Churros and clam chowder bread bowls are all the rage, but not for this T1D. I make sure that I pack a backpack with fun snacks that I can enjoy throughout the day. I love protein bars, beef jerky, mixed nuts and chocolate rice cakes. I use this same strategy when going to sporting events like baseball and football games.
- Travel – On-the-go snacks are usually loaded with carbs, sugar and fake ingredients. When traveling, I try to avoid the snack options at gas stations when I’m on the road and airports when I’m flying. This is where snack-prep ahead of time comes into play. Along with all my other T1D supplies & essentials, I don’t travel without a backpack with plenty of water and healthy snacks. Travel alone, is hard on the T1D body so anything to help prevent insulin resistance is a smart move.
These are just six practical ways I’ve found to be helpful when dealing with insulin resistance. I realize as a T1D that diabetes has an unpredictability factor too. Sometimes there are situations that are unavoidable and that’s the part that makes this disease often difficult to manage. It can be quite frustrating and exhausting! We rely on insulin to keep us alive, but sometimes it takes other methods to work alongside the help of insulin to get our BGLs into our target range. Before jumping to upping your dose of insulin, I’d suggest giving the six strategies I mentioned for fighting insulin resistance a shot.
Read Fitness Now with T1D by Marci Thiessen.