What is Insulin Resistance?: Understanding the Risks, Symptoms, and Solutions

what is insulin resistance

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One in three Americans has some level of insulin resistance.  This condition occurs when the body's cells become less responsive to insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that regulates blood sugar levels. As a result, the body has difficulty processing glucose properly, which is why insulin resistance is a precursor to type 2 diabetes.

While insulin resistance has long been recognized as a significant health concern, recent research has shed new light on the underlying mechanisms that contribute to this condition. In this article, we will explore the latest findings on insulin resistance and discuss strategies for managing this condition to improve overall health and prevent associated diseases.

What is insulin? 

what is insulin

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps regulate the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood. It allows the body's cells to use glucose for energy or store it for later use. Insulin plays a key role in maintaining normal blood sugar levels, and a lack of insulin or reduced insulin sensitivity can lead to high blood sugar levels and a range of health problems.

What is insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance is a metabolic condition that occurs when the body's cells become resistant to insulin. This means that the body is unable to use insulin effectively so it needs to produce more insulin in order to maintain normal blood sugar levels. Over time, this can lead to high blood sugar levels and a range of health problems.

Why do people develop insulin resistance? 

what is insulin resistance

Insulin resistance can develop as a result of a number of factors, including genetics, lifestyle choices, and age. Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are two of the most common risk factors for insulin resistance. In addition, certain medical conditions, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), can also increase the risk of developing insulin resistance. Lifestyle choices such as high-sugar diets, smoking, and shortchanging our sleep can all contribute to the development of insulin resistance.

How does insulin resistance work physiologically?

Insulin resistance occurs when the body's cells stop responding to insulin in the way they should. Normally, insulin helps to regulate blood sugar levels by signaling to cells to take up glucose from the bloodstream. However, when we eat a high volume of processed and sugary foods and drinks, our blood sugar spikes and our body needs to release a lot of insulin in order to bring blood glucose levels back to normal. If this high-sugar diet persists for a long period of time, insulin becomes overworked. The volume of insulin is consistently so high that the body acclimates to this high insulin level and the insulin becomes less effective. When cells become resistant to insulin, they are less able to respond to these signals. As a result, the body needs to produce more insulin in order to achieve the same effect.

Why is insulin resistance detrimental to our health? 

blood pressure and insulin resistance

Insulin resistance is a key factor in the development of type 2 diabetes, a condition characterized by high blood sugar levels. In addition, insulin resistance is associated with a range of other health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. Research has also linked insulin resistance to an increased risk of certain types of cancersuch as breast and colon cancer.

What happens if we have insulin resistance?

If left untreated, insulin resistance can lead to a range of health problems. In addition to increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance can also lead to fatty liver disease, a condition in which fat accumulates in the liver. This can cause inflammation and scarring, which can eventually lead to liver damage.

Signs of Insulin Resistance 

Insulin resistance often has no symptoms in its early stages. However, as the condition progresses, people may experience symptoms such as fatigue, increased hunger, sugar cravings, weight gain, and possibly mood fluctuations due to poorly managed blood sugar levels. One of the best (and easiest) ways to tell if you are at an elevated risk of having insulin resistance is via a waist measurement. A wait measurement of 35 inches or more for women and 40 inches or more for men significantly increases the chances of having insulin resistance. Having a waist circumference larger than the aforementioned numbers along with two or more of the following criteria further increases the risk of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, according to the National Institute of Health

signs of insulin resistance

-      High triglyceride levels- Triglyceride levels of 150 or more increases the risk of insulin resistance.

Low HDL Cholesterol- High-density lipoprotein is referred to as “good” cholesterol. When HDL levels drop below 50 for women or 40 for men, the risk of insulin resistance increases.

High blood pressure- Having a blood pressure greater than 130/85 mmHg increases the risk of insulin resistance.

High fasting blood sugar levels- A fasting blood sugar test with results of 100 mg/dl or greater elevates insulin resistance risk.

How to Improve Insulin Resistance

There are several steps that people can take to improve insulin resistance. These include: 

exercise and insulin resistance
  1.   Exercise regularly: Exercise has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and can help to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Even moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, can have a positive impact on insulin resistance. When we exercise we utilize the glucose that is already in circulation to power our muscles. Since the sugar is being pulled from the bloodstream to be used as fuel for our workout, the exercise takes the place of insulin and reduces insulin’s workload. As an added reward, when we consistently perform exercise, the body becomes more insulin sensitive even during times between workouts.
  2.   Eat a healthy diet: A healthy balanced diet can help to improve insulin resistance by providing the body with the nutrients it needs to function properly without overworking insulin. A diet that is lower in processed foods, sugary drinks, and sweets can help to reduce blood sugar spikes and reduce the need for extra insulin. Prioritizing protein, fiber, and healthy fats is recommended. Pairing protein with carbohydrates and ordering your meals so that carbohydrates are consumed last are also helpful tips that can aid in reducing post-meal blood sugar spikes. 
    weight and insulin resistance
  3. Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight (having a body mass index between 25 and 29.9) or obese (having a body mass index of 30 or above) is a risk factor for insulin resistance. Body mass index (BMI) is calculated by taking your weight (in kilograms) and dividing it by the square of your height (in meters). Losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight can help to improve insulin resistance and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 
  4. Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep can disrupt the body's hormone balance and increase the risk of insulin resistance. Getting enough sleep is important for overall health, and can help to improve insulin sensitivity.

Take Home Tips

Insulin resistance is a metabolic condition that occurs when the body's cells become resistant to insulin. This can lead to high blood sugar levels and a range of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease. By making healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting enough sleep, insulin sensitivity can be improved.


Author: Dr. Colleen Gulick