Insulin resistance may sound like a fancy technical term from a biology textbook, but in reality, it’s a fairly common health condition that can affect anyone – and that everyone should be aware of. In fact, research has found that approximately 40% of American adults have insulin resistance and more than 84 million Americans over the age of 18 have prediabetes. Unfortunately, these are conditions that you can’t see with the naked eye and it doesn’t always affect the way you feel either. The good news: knowledge is power and in this article, you learn everything there is to know about insulin resistance – from the causes to the cures, and everything in between.
What is Insulin Resistance?
Insulin resistance, also known as impaired insulin sensitivity, refers to a health condition where the body does not effectively respond to the insulin hormone that is being produced by the pancreas and that is essential for regulating blood sugar levels. But this can all sound confusing without first knowing what the roles of both the pancreas and insulin.
The pancreas’ main role is to protect your body against excess glucose or sugar. It does so by producing insulin to help glucose in your blood reach your muscle, fat and liver cells, where it can be used as energy or stored for later use.
Typically, under normal circumstances, insulin carries out the following steps:
- Your body breaks down the food you eat and turns it into glucose or sugar to be used as energy or stored to be used later
- Glucose enters your bloodstream, signalling to your pancreas to secrete insulin.
- Insulin pushes the glucose into muscle, fat, and liver cells, so that it can be used for energy (now or later)
- As glucose enters the cells and the glucose levels in your bloodstream decrease, it triggers your pancreas to stop insulin production.
When you have insulin resistance your muscle, fat and liver cells aren’t able to respond to the insulin as they should. As a result, they can’t take up the glucose from your blood or store it properly. With more glucose in your blood, your body triggers your pancreas you make more insulin to help balance it out, resulting in an increase in blood glucose levels. Over time, your cells become more resistant to insulin which leads to hyperglycemia and eventually, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes and many more potential risks.
The Causes of Insulin Resistance
It is not entirely clear what causes insulin resistance, but there are various factors, such as having a family history of type 2 diabetes, being overweight (especially around the stomach area), and having an inactive lifestyle that can increase the risk. However, it’s important to mention that you don’t have to be overweight to develop insulin resistance. Additionally, it isn’t a condition that you can tell someone has simply by looking at them, as it can be developed in all shapes, sizes and lifestyles.
However, the factors and potential causes that can increase your risk of insulin resistance are:
- Obesity, especially excess fat stored around the waist
- Inactive lifestyle
- A diet high in carbohydrates
- Gestational diabetes
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
- Family history of diabetes
- Ethnicity (higher risk in Africans, Latinos, or Native Americans)
- Age (higher risk after the age of 45)
- Hormonal disorders like Cushing’s syndrome and acromegaly
- Medications like steroids, antipsychotics, and HIV medications
- Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea
Insulin resistance may also be caused:
- Consuming large amounts of fructose: Consuming high amounts of fructose from added sugars (not the natural kinds that you get from fruit) has been associated with insulin resistance.
- Chronic inflammation: Increased inflammation and oxidative stress in the body may lead to insulin resistance
- Problems with your gut: Research suggests that problems in the gut flora can trigger inflammation, worsening insulin resistance and other metabolic issues
So, How Do I Know If I Have Insulin Resistance?
You can’t see insulin resistance and you can’t tell if you have it simply by the way you feel. The same can be said about most of the other conditions that are part of insulin resistance syndrome, such as high blood pressure, low “good” cholesterol levels and high triglycerides. So, you may be wondering how you can know whether or not this is something your body is struggling with. The best option is to get a blood test that checks your blood sugar levels. This is going to give you the most accurate results and as mentioned, it can also let you know if there are signs of other insulin-related health conditions.
There are also some signs of insulin resistance to look out for, such as:
- Increased thirst
- Increased hunger
- Blurred vision
- Frequent need to urinate
- Waistline over 40 inches in men, and over 35 inches in women
- Vaginal and skin infections
- Skin tags or patches of dark, velvety skin called acanthosis nigricans
- Cuts and sores healing slowly
- Blood pressure reading of 130 over 80 or higher
- Fasting glucose level equal to or above 100 milligrams per deciliter
- Blood sugar level equal to or above 140 milligrams per deciliter two hours after a glucose load test
- A1C (hemoglobin) between 5.7% and 6.3%
- Fasting triglycerides level over 150 milligrams per deciliter
- HDL cholesterol level under 40 milligrams per deciliter in men, and under 50 milligrams per deciliter in women
Again, these are just some potential signs of insulin resistance. The only way to be sure is to see a doctor and get the proper bloodwork done.
Potential Complications of Insulin Resistance
If you have insulin resistance, your pancreas continues to produce more insulin to compensate for your cells not properly absorbing it. This can keep your blood sugar levels within normal range for a while. However, without proper treatment, your pancreas will eventually be unable to keep up, leading to your blood sugar levels increasing, putting you at risk of developing prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. You will also be at higher risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and other serious health problems, such as:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Severely high blood sugar
- Severely low blood sugar
- Heart attack
- Kidney disease
- Eye problems
Effective Ways to Prevent Insulin Sensitivity
Preventing insulin resistance can be as simple as making a few important diet and lifestyle changes. In fact, diet, exercise and weight loss are the three most important factors that can help increase insulin sensitivity and the best part: they’re entirely within your control.
The following tips for preventing insulin sensitivity can also be used to effectively and completely reverse insulin resistance.
Regular physical activity is crucial in improving insulin sensitivity and reversing insulin resistance. It is considered a key component in managing diabetes and promoting overall health, so the earlier you can start being more active, the better your health will be.
As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate activity, such as a brisk walk, at least 5 days a week.
Eating a Healthier Diet
The food you eat can have a huge impact on your insulin and blood sugar levels. For example, highly processed, high-carbohydrate, and high-fat foods often require more insulin to manage. So, try to limit your intake of these types of food items, such as white bread, potatoes, cakes and cookies and focus on eating foods with a low to medium glycemic index. Some excellent examples are beans, legumes, fruits, non-starchy vegetables like asparagus and leafy greens, nuts, fish, dairy, and meat.
Additionally, eating foods rich in fiber can help regulate blood sugar levels by slowing down digestion, which will further help prevent blood sugar spikes.
Burning Belly Fat
Since overweight and obesity are common risk factors associated with insulin resistance, especially with the fat is accumulating around the stomach area, losing weight can be an effective way to increase insulin sensitivity. In fact, losing weight – even just by 7% – can have a positive impact on your insulin sensitivity.
A few extra recommendations for reducing insulin resistance are:
- Quit smoking: Tobacco smoking can cause insulin resistance.
- Eat more omega-3 fatty acids: These fats may reduce insulin resistance and lower blood triglyceride levels.
- Prioritize your sleep: Poor sleep has been linked to being a possible cause of insulin resistance.
- Manage stress: Chronic stress may be linked to the development of insulin resistance. Practice stress management with yoga, meditation, journaling and basic self-care.
- Intermittent fasting: An eating pattern that involves alternating between periods of fasting and eating may improve insulin sensitivity.
As an added bonus, these habits are also associated with better overall health and wellness, a longer life, and protection against chronic disease.
Insulin resistance is a serious condition that affects many people worldwide. Fortunately, there are many lifestyle changes you can make to prevent or reverse this condition, including exercise, a healthy diet, and stress management. These benefits will extend well into various parts of your life, improving your overall health and well-being while also reducing your risk of developing complications associated with insulin resistance, such as prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.