Everything You Need to Know About Insulin Resistance

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Samantha Miller, MBChB

Photo Courtesy: [Oscar Wong/Moment/Getty Images]

Everything You Need to Know About Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance is a health condition in which your body’s cells become resistant to the effects of the hormone insulin, which acts to regulate the levels of glucose (sugar) in your body. Lifestyle changes such as altering your diet and increasing the amount of exercise you do can often help prevent this condition. However, for some people, it can be a precursor to prediabetes or even Type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance may not have any symptoms, but it can have some serious health consequences without treatment. We'll help you better understand the basics of this condition, from what to look out for to what you can expect from treatment.

What Is Insulin, and What Is Insulin Resistance?

Insulin is a hormone that is naturally produced by your body's beta cells, which are located in your pancreas. This substance is necessary for your body to be able to utilize sugar in the form of glucose that you get from your diet, and your pancreas releases it following a meal containing carbohydrates or sugars. Under the influence of insulin, glucose is taken up into your cells from your blood, where your body either uses it for energy production or stores it.

Insulin resistance occurs when your body’s cells don’t respond as well to insulin, so they're not as efficient at taking up glucose into your cells from your blood. These cells need more and more insulin to be present to respond appropriately. When you have insulin resistance, your pancreas responds by producing more insulin so your cells are able to use glucose. For a time, your pancreas can keep up with this extra demand, but over time it may become unable to keep up, which results in a condition prediabetes. Prediabetes is a condition in which your blood sugar becomes elevated as your cells lose their ability to respond to insulin and take sugar from your blood adequately.

Causes and Symptoms of Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance often doesn’t have any symptoms at all. Some people may develop discoloration on the skin in their armpits or on the backs of their necks. This is a condition called acanthosis nigricans. You might also experience symptoms if you start to develop prediabetes or diabetes.

There are many risk factors that elevate your likelihood of developing insulin resistance. There's certainly a genetic component, but there are several other factors that are also linked to an increased risk of insulin resistance, including:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Being physically inactive
  • Being African American, Hispanic, Latine, Native American, Asian American or Pacific Islander
  • Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Being over age 45
  • Having hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Having high levels of cholesterol or triglycerides (fat) in your blood
  • Experiencing frequent physical stress such as trauma or infection
  • Using certain medications, such as cyclosporine, niacin, protease inhibitors and steroids
  • Having a waistline over 40 inches in men and 35 inches in women

Diagnosing Insulin Resistance

There's no single test for insulin resistance, and your doctor will use a combination of their own findings and laboratory  results (usually from blood tests) to come to a diagnosis of insulin resistance.

Routine laboratory tests your doctor may choose to perform include:

  • Fasting blood glucose
  • Glucose tolerance test
  • Fasting insulin level
  • Lipid profile that looks at various cholesterol levels

Insulin resistance commonly occurs along with a cluster of other conditions such as hypertension and abdominal obesity in a condition referred to as “metabolic syndrome.”

Treating Insulin Resistance

Photo Courtesy: John Fedele/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Managing insulin resistance begins with lifestyle modifications. If you're overweight or obese, adopting a more healthy diet and increasing your regular exercise is an essential part of the managing this condition. Your doctor may recommend that you add foods to your diet that are high in fiber due to the fact that natural fiber can lower blood insulin levels and help to prevent high blood pressure. In addition to changing your diet and exercise routine, you should not smoke tobacco or drink alcohol excessively if you have  insulin resistance.

Doctors tend not to prescribe medications for managing insulin resistance alone. They usually reserve medications for people with prediabetes or diabetes. If your insulin resistance is severe, you may require insulin injections to keep your sugar levels optimal.

If you think you may have insulin resistance based on some of the risk factors listed above, see your doctor right away. They can help you determine how to best change your lifestyle to manage this health condition while also prescribing medications or insulin injections if necessary. It's possible to reverse insulin resistance with careful lifestyle modifications and avoid developing Type 2 diabetes. More importantly, your doctor will also screen you for dangerous conditions associated with insulin resistance, including diabetes and cardiovascular (heart) disease, allowing you to treat them as well if necessary.

 

Resource Links:

https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/what-is-diabetes/prediabetes-insulin-resistance

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK431057/

https://professional.diabetes.org/sites/professional.diabetes.org/files/media/All_about_Insulin_Resistance.pdf 

https://medlineplus.gov/metabolicsyndrome.html 

https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/insulin-resistance.html

https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/prevent-type-2/index.html 

https://bestpractice.bmj.com/topics/en-gb/212 

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/metabolic-syndrome/ 

https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/physrev.00063.2017 

ADVERTISEMENT