Insulin Resistance

By:    Published: November 3, 2011

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Insulin resistance is a health condition in which the body is resistant to the effects of a hormone called insulin. Changes in diet and exercising can often combat the effects of this condition for many people who suffer from it. Insulin resistance may seem relatively harmless at first, but the important thing to remember about this health condition is that it could lead to several serious diseases, including type 2 diabetes. Read this article to learn more about insulin resistance, including what causes it and how to treat it.

What is Insulin?

The first step in understanding insulin resistance is understanding how insulin works and its effects on the body. Insulin is a hormone that is naturally produced by our body's beta cells, which are located in the pancreas. When insulin is released, it travels through the body via the bloodstream. Insulin's main functions are to regulate the metabolism of sugars, starches, fats and proteins.

For most people, insulin production and function goes off without a hitch. However, people with insulin resistance have a different experience. Their bodies are more resistant to the effects of insulin, which means that their metabolism of the substances mentioned above may be off. Therefore, people with insulin resistance often need extra insulin in their bodies in order to experience the appropriate amount of metabolism regulation.

Causes of Insulin Resistance

There may be many contributing factors to insulin resistance depending on each individual's experience. Many experts believe that inherited genes may increase a person's risk for becoming insulin resistant. However, there are several health conditions which researchers have linked to an increased risk for insulin resistance, including:

  • Obesity: Obese individuals have fewer insulin receptors on their cell surfaces, which makes it harder for their muscles to use insulin properly.
  • Physical stress: Things like trauma, infection, severe illness or surgery can interfere with the effects of insulin.
  • The use of certain medications: Drugs like cyclosporine, niacin and protease inhibitors may cause the body to become more resistant to insulin over time. This effect is also seen in some cases of steroid use.
  • Aging: As the body ages, its ability to transport and use insulin may be compromised.

Symptoms to Watch For

There are several key signs that may appear when a person is insulin resistant, many of which are serious diseases caused by the insulin resistance itself. These symptoms are:

  • Type 2 diabetes: When the pancreas is not producing enough insulin, blood sugar levels may rise, resulting in type 2 diabetes.
  • High blood pressure: Having higher blood pressure may make insulin resistance worse.
  • Altered cholesterol levels: Typically, people with insulin resistance will have higher triglyceride levels and lower HDL cholesterol levels.
  • Heart disease: People who are more resistant to insulin often develop atherosclerosis and have an increased risk for blood clots.

Heart disease is an especially risky symptom of insulin resistance, and should be treated carefully and thoroughly. In addition, type 2 diabetes can often be managed but can quickly escalate to a dangerous level if not treated properly.

Treating Insulin Resistance

Most people are diagnosed with insulin resistance based on the associated health conditions which may have developed or based on certain risk factors, like obesity. Blood glucose and blood insulin level tests can be completed to confirm the results of this diagnosis. Treatment typically starts right away after the diagnosis is complete and may include a dramatic change in lifestyle. Especially for those who are overweight, a healthy diet and regular exercise will become a necessity in order to manage their insulin resistance. There is an emphasis on adding foods which are high in fiber to the diet of an individual with insulin resistance due to the fact that natural fiber can lower blood insulin levels and help to prevent high blood pressure. In addition to diet and exercise, those with insulin resistance should not smoke or drink alcohol excessively.

There are also several medications that may be prescribed to help manage insulin resistance. Biguanides and thiazolidinediones both help the body absorb more glucose in the muscles and  fatty tissues. However, these medications are usually only given to patients who have been diagnosed with diabetes. Some individuals with insulin resistance are given insulin to inject into their body in order to lower their blood sugar levels.

If you think you may have insulin resistance based on some of the risk factors listed above, see your doctor right away. He or she can help you determine how to best change your lifestyle to manage this health condition while also prescribing medications or insulin injections if necessary. More importantly, you will also be screened for dangerous conditions associated with insulin resistance, including heart disease, allowing you to treat that as well if necessary.

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