By Lyssa Balick, MS
Insulin resistance is a condition where your body does not respond properly to insulin and as a result, your body cannot easily absorb glucose from the bloodstream. Over time, this can make it hard for your body to control glucose and may lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Many people with insulin resistance have high levels of glucose and insulin circulating in their blood at the same time (1).
Both aging and lifestyle factors can affect the way your body produces insulin. Factors that lead to higher insulin resistance include:
While genetics and aging do have an impact, small changes in lifestyle factors can make a big difference.
How Can Lifestyle Factors Help?
Dr. John Kirwan oversees research in the area of aging, obesity and diabetes at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. He has conducted several studies that show that diet and exercise, alone or in combination, improved glucose and insulin response. One study, published in 2009 in the American Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, looked at lifestyle factors in obese, older people who had blood glucose levels in the pre-diabetic range. The 19 people enrolled in the study exercised about one hour a day, five days a week. Nine of the people also got dietary counseling on reducing calories by about 500 calories per day. After 12 weeks, those in the exercise group lost an average of 6.6 pounds and improved their exercise capacity. Those in the diet and exercise group lost an average of 18 pounds, needed to make less insulin and improved the way that their body's insulin responded to glucose (4). Follow up studies at the Cleveland clinic with pre-diabetic, overweight subjects has found that diet and exercise in combination improve factors of insulin resistance, inflammation, and weight loss. The dietary factors that are were most effective were those diets lower in calories and higher in fiber (5).
Dietary factors alone can help with insulin resistance, obesity, and inflammation, which are all factors in pre-diabetes. A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition looked at how a Mediterranean diet high in olive oil, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables affected body weight and markers of pre-diabetes. The study took healthy Australian adults over 65 years old and put them on either a Mediterranean diet or a standard Western diet for six months. The results found that those on the Mediterranean diet had lower triglycerides and lower oxidative stress (as measured by F2-Isoprostanes) compared to those on the Western diet, but glucose and insulin were not significantly different between groups. In addition, those that were on a Mediterranean diet had better measures of cognitive function (6, 7).
Culinary spices and herbs, also used in a traditional Mediterranean diet, can sometimes help level out blood glucose when consumed with meals. Researchers in Singapore reviewed the evidence on using culinary spices and spice extracts on controlling blood glucose and insulin levels. They found that spices like cinnamon, ginger, black cumin, fenugreek, and cloves reduced blood glucose and/or triglyceride levels directly after consumption (8).
Research on postmenopausal women has also demonstrated that lifestyle factors can improve insulin resistance or pre-diabetes. Dr. Polotsky has also observed how lifestyle changes can impact insulin resistance for women as they transition into menopause. She found that with her patients, brief walking 10-15 miles a week and small decreases in calories can prevent weight gain. It doesn’t take tremendous amount of exercise and diet changes to have a huge impact. She has seen how just a 5-10% weight loss can improve not only body weight, but insulin, cholesterol levels and even a better night’s sleep (3).
Is There Anything I Can Do?
As you age, many individual factors determine how your body processes insulin and glucose. However, staying active and maintaining a normal body weight can help. Some tips:
About the Author: Lyssa Balick, MS
Lyssa is a nutritionist with over twenty years of experience planning, conducting, and evaluating nutrition programs. Past experiences include a country wide evaluation of breastfeeding practices for UNICEF, writing parts of a national hunger prevention curriculum for Share Our Strength, and conducting an award winning, comprehensive preschool nutrition and cooking program for Port Discovery. She has taught nutrition at Community College and to Baltimore City teachers, counseled women and their families on nutrition and helped with program evaluation and implementation on a national, international and local level. Lyssa has a Masters Degree in Nutrition from the Tufts School of Nutrition and is a Certified Nutrition Specialist. When not working on nutrition projects, Lyssa can be found hiking, cooking, hanging out with family and friends, or collecting pieces for her midcentury modern side business.
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