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With so much written about diet versus exercise and exercise versus diet, it’s easy to overlook the role hormones play in our health and wellbeing, but they can make all the difference. That's why we’ve decided to take a closer look at the hormone insulin: What is it, and how does it relate to diabetes? Can we manipulate insulin to help us lose fat and live longer? As it turns out, we can—and pretty easily, too.

What Is Insulin and How Does It Relate to Diabetes?

Insulin is a super important hormone that helps us absorb nutrients from our food. Whenever we eat carbs (and a little bit when we eat ), the amount of sugar in our blood increases, and to help take the sugar and into our organs (mostly the ) where it can be used for energy . Franz MJ. Diabetes Educ. 1997 Nov-Dec;23(6):643-6, 648, 650-1..

Diabetes is a disease that occurs when that insulin response and with nowhere to go. This can result in , including vision loss, hearing loss, high blood pressure, and gum disease.

There are two main kinds of diabetes: Type 1 occurs when . Type 2 occurs when , but the body doesn’t respond to it the right way. What causes Type 1 is often . Type 2 diabetes is —some have estimated that born in 2000 will develop the disease—and a lot of the time, it can be prevented. How? Let’s talk insulin sensitivity.

What Is Insulin Sensitivity?

Doing a lot of something can make you less sensitive to its effects, right? Drinking coffee all the time can dull the caffeine, regular drinkers find they need more beers to get drunk than they used to, and so on.

In kind of the same way, eating carbs too often (especially simple ones, like sugars), can make us to insulin (or more “insulin resistant”). When that happens, we need to produce more insulin than we should need to in order to .

That’s bad. If becomes poor, we have trouble digesting carbs and absorbing nutrients, and we gain weight. If it’s really bad for a long time, the pancreas needs to make more and more insulin because we’re so insensitive to it. Eventually, it and stops being able to release the hormone properly—and that’s when Type 2 diabetes occurs.

But insulin resistance doesn’t just increase the risk of diabetes. It ups the risk of and several kinds of cancer, and it also makes it a lot harder to control body fat . Stolzenberg-Solomon RZ, Graubard BI, et al. National Cancer Institute, Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD, USA. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2005 Dec 14;294(22):2872-8. . De Nunzio C, Aronson W, et al. Department of Urology, Sant'Andrea Hospital, University La Sapienza, Rome, Italy. European Urology, 2012 Mar;61(3):560-70. . Bruning PF, Bonfrèr JM, et al. The Netherlands Cancer Institute, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Bruning PF, Bonfrèr JM, et al. The Netherlands Cancer Institute, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. International Journal of Cancer, 1992 Oct 21;52(4):511-6.. So if we want to burn fat, we want to be sensitive—even the big, tough guys! Fortunately we know plenty of ways to make your insulin work for you.

8 Ways to Improve Insulin Sensitivity

If insulin sensitivity is of concern, it’s not hard to get it tested—just ask a doctor for a . Maximizing insulin sensitivity should be a priority for anyone interested in improving their health, minimizing their diabetes risk, and even rocking sweet abs. Here are eight tips to help that happen.

  1. Exercise regularly
    Exercising can improve nearly every health marker there is, and insulin sensitivity is no exception . Reichkendler MH, Auerbach P, et al. The American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism,  2013 Aug 15;305(4):E496-506. . Borghouts LB, Keizer HA. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 2000 Jan;21(1):1-12.. To maximize the insulin-related benefits, make the workouts extra intense with high intensity interval training or . Alvarez C, Ramírez R, et al. Revista Médica de Chile, 2012 Oct;140(10):1289-96. . Ahmadi N, Eshaghian S, et al. American Journal of Medicine, 2011 Oct;124(10):978-82..
  2. Get plenty of sleep
    Lying down’s never been so healthy! Getting is crucial to keep the body functioning smoothly, and that includes hormone production . McNeil J, Doucet E, et al. Canadian Journal of Diabetes, 2013 Apr;37(2):103-8..
  3. Eat fewer carbohydrates, especially simple carbs
    Eating lots of carbs makes us produce a lot of insulin, so it’s best to follow a diet that’s , especially sugar, to maximize our sensitivity to the stuff . Ballard KD, Quann EE, et al. Nutrition Research, 2013 Nov;33(11):905-12.. An exception is after you exercise—a blood sugar spike is a good thing , because the insulin helps to quickly send nutrients to exhausted muscles.
  4. Eat slow-digesting foods
    When foods digest slowly, the sugars take longer to hit the bloodstream, and insulin is released more gradually. Fats, fiber, and protein are all great examples, and should make up a significant portion of our diets . Liese AD, Schulz M, et al. Diabetes Care. 2005 Dec;28(12):2832-8. . Vessby B, Uusitupa M, et al. Diabetologia. 2001 Mar;44(3):312-9..
  5. Fast regularly
    Intermittent fasting can be a useful method to lower the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a wide range of other illnesses . Halberg N, Henriksen M, et al. Dept. of Muscle Research Centre, The Panum Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2005 Dec;99(6):2128-36. . Horne BD, May HT, et al. Cardiovascular Department, Intermountain Medical Center, Murray, Utah, USA. American Journal of Cardiology, 2008 Oct 1;102(7):814-819..
  6. Eat cinnamon
    Cinnamon is a delicious way to control blood glucose . Magistrelli A, Chezem JC. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2012 Nov;112(11):1806-9.. Put that ish on everything, from yogurt to coffee.
  7. Drink green tea
    Drinking plenty of green tea has been shown to significantly reduce blood sugar concentrations, but ditch the milk—it can undermine tea’s circulatory benefits . Ashida H, Furuyashiki T, et al. Biofactors 2004; 22(1-4):135-40. . Liu K, Zhou R, et al. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2013 Aug;98(2):340-8. . Lorenz M, Jochmann N, et al. European Heart Journal, 2007 Jan;28(2):219-23..
  8. Keep body fat low
    However it’s achieved, simply being lean can improve insulin sensitivity . Boden G, Chen X, et al. Diabetes Care. 1993 May;16(5):728-33.. There’s never been a better reason to train for fat loss!
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