Insulin is the hormone produced by the pancreas that moves blood glucose from the food we eat into our tissues and organs; it is needed for energy and a multitude of important functions. Insulin resistance (IR) is a physiological state where our cells become resistant to the effects of insulin resistance, and is an underlying cause of many serious health conditions.
The goal of this series of articles is to show how we can restore insulin sensitivity to our cells and help reverse IR. When our cells are more sensitive to the effects of insulin, the many health problems associated with IR can be reversed, bringing you the greatest potential for living a long, disease-free life. If you haven’t read the first two parts, I recommend you go to avivahealth.com/zassman, as they contain important information and additional context.
While most people associate high blood glucose and high insulin levels with type 2 diabetes, before reaching confirmation of that diagnosis, a host of other problems may develop which should be a red flag that it’s time to correct the underlying cause of these problems by lowering blood glucose and insulin levels through lifestyle, diet, and supplements. Just about every health problem can be improved by correcting this one overarching cause.
While there are a number of dietary changes and lifestyle modifications to consider, in this installment I’ll outline the role of air quality, sleep, and exercise and how they all can either contribute to insulin resistance or help correct it by improving insulin sensitivity.
Particulate matter up to 2.5 microns (PM2.5) is considered to be among the most dangerous category of air pollutants, as these tiny particles can get lodged deep in the lungs, and even enter the bloodstream. Most cities track the levels of PM2.5 present in the environment, but even PM10 can result in inflammation in the body. Once in the blood, these particles can activate pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines that can potentially contribute to IR. I recommend using a quality HEPA air purifier like products from Blueair that can remove particles even smaller than PM2.5, making your indoor spaces safer and more comfortable.
Exposure to cigarette smoke increases the risk of many chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular and respiratory conditions. Dr. Gerald Reaven identified a relationship between smoking and IR over 20 years ago, and many studies have since confirmed his research. In addition, secondhand smoke can produce ceramides — bad fats that may cause smoke-induced IR. The main addictive component in tobacco, nicotine, causes our fat cells to be insulin resistant, and nicotine can also enter the body through patches and vaping.
Matthew Walker, the director of UC Berkley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab wrote an excellent book called “Why We Sleep” where he outlines the many important benefits of sufficient sleep, and how insufficient sleep is associated with Alzheimer’s disease and a long list of health problems, including cancer. While the exact amount of sleep a person needs can vary, just one week of insufficient sleep can increase IR by over 30%, and a recent study found that two days of sleep restriction could make even healthy people insulin resistant.
White light is a relatively equal blend of red, blue, and green light. When you are exposed to normal daylight, cell phones, computer monitors, and televisions, the blue portion of the light stimulates serotonin and cortisol (the stress hormone). It also works to inhibit melatonin production which is critical for sleep and immune function. In addition, too much light in general can contribute to developing IR, while spending more time in the dark, helps to lower it. I recommend using blue-blocking sunglasses if you need to use a screen, or ideally, to stop using any screens within three hours of bedtime. If you want to read at night, there are special light bulbs that have the blue portion of light removed designed for nighttime use, or look for lighting in the 3000 Kelvin range, which is a more yellow colour.
I love a brief nap, especially if I have to be at my best in the evening, but napping for an hour a day is associated with IR. Keeping your naps limited to 30 minutes is ideal as it doesn’t increase IR. In addition, napping for an hour or more can affect your ability to fall asleep at night. I find that 25-30 minutes before 3:00 pm works best for me.
Exercise & Movement
One of the primary reasons older people develop IR is because they become more sedentary. Even being sedentary for a few days, as can happen if you are fighting a bad cold or recovering from a surgical procedure can result in a measurable increase in insulin resistance. A seven-fold increase in IR can result from just a week of being bedridden, and it can take many weeks to reverse. It’s critically important that you get sufficient rest and sleep if you’re trying to recover from any illness. As one of my teachers told me many years ago, “Your body has only so much energy. If you use that energy to propel yourself about, that same energy can’t be used for healing.”
Whenever you move, you contract your muscles, and muscle contraction enables the muscle to take in glucose from the blood without the use of insulin. Any type of movement, even walking at a moderate pace, will lower insulin and blood glucose levels and improve insulin sensitivity. Exercise also results in improved cardiovascular function and stronger bones and muscles, but it must be combined with other lifestyle and dietary changes for weight loss and to reverse IR.
It’s important to move around during the day. Sitting for two hours without a break increases IR, especially before eating. Standing up and flexing your muscles every 20 minutes, even for a minute or two can help reduce the risk of developing IR.
Resistance vs. Aerobic Exercise
Studies confirm that you receive the greatest benefit from resistance exercise, and not just for lowering IR. You can receive benefits from aerobic exercise too, so if you prefer to walk (I like a brisk pace), you will still benefit from walking daily. Do the form of exercise you like best, so you can make it a daily habit. If you want to spend the least amount of time and reap the greatest benefits, resistance training improves insulin sensitivity the most. If you only have an hour or two per week to exercise, I recommend training with weights, bands, or other forms of resistance. You build the most muscle from resistance training, and the more muscle you have, the greater potential for removing glucose from the blood.
Being casual about exercise, whether it’s walking, aerobics, or resistance, will not bring the best results. It’s important to increase the intensity as much as you can. If you’re doing aerobics (i.e. walking, biking, rowing, swimming), low intensity makes sense as you get more accustomed to the exercise, but eventually you want to challenge yourself to go at a faster pace. As a former musician, I’ll sing a musical piece (usually a Sousa march like The Stars and Stripes Forever) in my head, and exercise to that rhythm. If I’m doing resistance exercise, it’s important to exercise as vigorously as possible. Even if you’re using a low weight, focus on doing as many repetitions as possible. When you’ve finished exercising, don’t drink a sports drink that’s high in sugar, as this will counteract the insulin-sensitizing benefits of the exercise.
In the coming months, I’ll outline some of the dietary changes and important nutritional supplements that can help restore insulin sensitivity and reverse IR. When combined with these lifestyle changes, you’ll position yourself to feel better throughout the day and help prevent disease.
Nathan Zassman is the owner and president of Aviva Natural Health Solutions.