Insulin resistance affects around 40% of young Americans, many of them women. And although it’s most commonly associated with type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance is also a major factor in the severity of PCOS symptoms.

Although there is no currently known ‘cure’, treating insulin resistance is often the key to reducing distressing symptoms commonly associated with PCOS such as acne, hair loss, excessive hair growth and weight gain. It may also help to reverse or prevent early-stage type 2 diabetes.

What is insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance occurs when tolerance to the hormone insulin builds up, impairing the body’s sensitivity to it. This means that more insulin is needed to process glucose, meaning muscles, fat and liver cells can’t easily respond to or accept it, triggering the production of even more insulin. This in turn affects the metabolism and the way the body processes food, in particular sugary and starchy foods. Over time insulin resistance can lead to difficult to control weight gain, especially around the middle.

Why does insulin resistance occur?

Scientists and doctors still don’t fully understand why insulin resistance occurs. Some initial studies suggest that it may be genetic – that different people naturally have different sensitivities to insulin that may worsen over time depending on various lifestyle and medical factors.

There is also evidence however that diet and fitness can play a role in the development of insulin resistance – as it is commonly found in clinically obese people. Whether or not insulin resistance is influenced by obesity (or the other way around) is often contested – but treating insulin resistance often holds the key to sustainable weight loss and better health, even preventing the development of type 2 diabetes or reversing prediabetes in some cases.

5 ways to combat insulin resistance

Tackling insulin resistance requires a consistent and committed approach. How soon you see a difference depends on your individual health status and the length of time you’ve struggled with insulin resistance – for those just beginning to see signs and symptoms, results may progress fairly quickly. However if you’ve been struggling for some time with insulin resistance you may find it takes longer to see a physical change.

Incorporating all five methods will support your body as it re-establishes a healthier connection with the insulin hormone and in turn, can support healthy weight loss and may help to minimize the severity of PCOS symptoms.

1. Sleep better

Good sleep positively impacts all areas of our health – but it has also been found to support healthier insulin sensitivity. In one study, nine healthy volunteers were monitored whilst spending one night having just 4 hours’ sleep, compared with getting 8.5 hours of sleep. After just one night of poor sleep the body’s ability to regulate sugar was impaired.

The good news is that catching up on lost sleep can reverse the impact of restless nights on insulin resistance. If you have consistently poor sleep, consider implementing healthy sleep hygiene habits or seeking medical advice.

2. Move more

Regular exercise has many benefits – including being one of the best ways to increase insulin sensitivity. During exercise there is an immediate and lasting positive impact on insulin resistance, whilst helping to move sugar into the muscles for storage rather than increasing volume of fat.

Two types of exercise in particular have been shown to support better insulin sensitivity – resistance training and high intensity aerobic activities. Regular resistance training has been shown in studies to increase insulin sensitivity even with individuals with type 2 diabetes.

3. Reduce sugar

Added sugars can be found in many different products – even savory sauces and condiments. Reducing processed foods will massively support a reduced sugar intake – but even so-called ‘healthy’ sugars like coconut and agave can impact upon blood sugar when you’re affected by insulin resistance. Cut down on sweet foods, watch out for added sugar and try replacements such as monkfruit and stevia when enjoying the occasional sweet treat.

4. Address stress

The body’s stress response affects the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, in turn leading to issues with insulin resistance. ‘Fight or flight’ hormones like cortisol break down glycogen, a type of sugar stored into the body, and release it into the blood stream. In a truly life or death situation this vital energy would be used to escape a dangerous situation – but in the case of contemporary stress they are often redundant. Over time, consistently elevated stress hormones also make the body more insulin resistant.

Stress management is personal, so find something that works for you. Regular exercise and sleep both promote lower stress levels – but therapy, meditation and other methods may be needed to help you see a lasting impact on stress levels.

5. Swap processed foods for whole foods

Processed foods tend to be high in fats, carbs and refined sugars which spike blood sugar and contribute to weight gain and belly fat. By contrast, whole foods are rich in soluble fiber, lean protein, antioxidants and nutrients which all support the body’s insulin response. Focus on vegetables, lean sources of protein and a small amount of healthy, whole carbs to support a healthy weight and improved insulin sensitivity.