What Is Insulin Resistance?
What Is Insulin Resistance? Everything You Ever Wanted to Know
Having insulin resistance may increase the risk of prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. But changing your diet and lifestyle can help reverse this health state.
Carbohydrates — sugars and starches found in many foods — are a main source of fuel for your body. Your digestive system breaks down carbs into glucose, or sugar, which is then released into your bloodstream. And with the help of insulin, glucose can absorb into the cells of your body to be used for energy or storage. (1) But if you have insulin resistance, your cells will have trouble absorbing this glucose, and your body will require more insulin to function properly. (2)
It is possible to overcome insulin resistance. But before you can deal with this problem, you must understand what insulin is, and how insulin affects control of blood glucose. (2)
Defining Insulin: How the Hormone Helps Regulate Blood Sugar
Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas, and it plays an important role in metabolism. Your pancreas secretes insulin into your bloodstream after you eat a meal. Insulin allows sugar in your bloodstream to enter into muscles, cells, and fat. (2)
This hormone is also important because it stops sugar from accumulating in your bloodstream. The more you eat, the more insulin your body releases to regulate your blood sugar and keep it within a healthy range. (3)
RELATED: Everything You Need to Know About Insulin if You Have Type 2 Diabetes
Understanding Insulin Resistance and Its Effect on Blood Sugar Control
Although the production and release of insulin is a natural metabolic response after eating, some people don’t use insulin properly.
To receive energy, your cells, fat, and muscles must be able to absorb the glucose in your bloodstream. If your body doesn’t respond well to insulin, glucose can build up in your blood and raise your blood sugar level. To help you maintain a normal blood sugar level, your pancreas compensates for this resistance by releasing more insulin. (3)
The effects of insulin resistance on the body vary from person to person. Sometimes, the increased production of insulin by the pancreas is enough to overcome insulin resistance and normalize blood sugar levels. But other times, the pancreas is unable to produce sufficient amounts of insulin to overcome the resistance. This triggers high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and other health problems. (3)
RELATED: How to Stabilize Your Blood Sugar
Although insulin resistance can exist on its own without another diagnosis, it relates to certain health conditions, too. Here are a few:
If your pancreas struggles to produce enough insulin to handle the glucose in your body, your blood sugar level can become mildly elevated and you may develop prediabetes. This means your blood sugar is higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed with diabetes.
This condition — which affects about 84.1 million people — is a precursor to type 2 diabetes. Having prediabetes also is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, eye problems, neuropathy (nerve damage), and kidney disease.
Type 2 Diabetes
In the case of prediabetes, your pancreas works overtime to secrete enough insulin to regulate your blood sugar. But if your pancreas can’t keep up with the demand, insulin resistance can progress from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes. Most people diagnosed with prediabetes end up with type 2 diabetes within 10 years. (3)
Metabolic syndrome is also closely related to insulin resistance. Interestingly, metabolic syndrome isn’t a condition in itself but rather a collection of metabolic risk factors that can set the stage for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Insulin resistance is included among these risk factors, along with high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, high triglycerides (a form of fat storage often related to lifestyle factors), and a large waist circumference.
RELATED: 10 Things Your Doctor Won’t Tell You About Metabolic Syndrome
The Potential Causes of Insulin Resistance
Although the exact cause of insulin resistance is unknown, certain factors have been linked with this condition. These include: (4)
Some people are also at higher risk for developing insulin resistance. These include people: (3)
The risk factors for insulin resistance are similar to the risk factors for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. But lifestyle changes can help your body use insulin properly, which can .
RELATED: 10 Bad Habits That Raise Your Diabetes Risk
What Are the Main Symptoms of Insulin Resistance?
Insulin resistance may not cause any noticeable symptoms, so you can have insulin resistance and not know it. Symptoms don’t usually occur until you develop prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.
If your blood sugar level becomes elevated and you have prediabetes, symptoms may include increased thirst and hunger, tiredness, and blurry vision. Insulin resistance can also cause the formation of dark patches on the neck, groin, and armpits called acanthosis nigricans. (5)
When insulin resistance progresses to type 2 diabetes, you may also have tingling sensations in your hands or feet. (6)
How Is Insulin Resistance Diagnosed?
Although insulin resistance doesn’t usually have symptoms, your doctor may recommend testing your blood sugar if you have risk factors for this condition, such as obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, or high blood pressure.
This involves a series of tests, which are the same for diagnosing prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. (7)
Hemoglobin A1C Test This blood test measures your average blood glucose level over a period of two to three months. This test can determine your blood sugar level, and help your doctor assess how well you’re managing the diabetes. A normal A1C test result is under 5.7 percent; results between 5.7 percent and 6.4 percent is prediabetes; and results equal to or above 6.5 percent is type 2 diabetes. (7) You’ll repeat testing at different intervals over three months to confirm an initial diagnosis.
RELATED: 5 Ways to Lower Your A1C
Fasting Plasma Glucose (FPG) You will not consume food or liquids for at least eight hours, and then your doctor will draw blood to measure your blood sugar level after fasting. If you have an elevated blood sugar, you’ll return a few days later to repeat the test. A repeatedly high level can indicate either prediabetes or diabetes. A number under 100 milligrams per decliliter (mg/dL) is normal; a number between 100 to 125 mg/dL signals prediabetes; and a number greater than 125 mg/dL signals type 2 diabetes. (7)
Glucose Tolerance Testing (OGTT) Your doctor measures your blood glucose level, gives you a sugary liquid to drink, and then repeats the test two hours after you drink the liquid. If after two hours your blood sugar level is less than 140 mg/dL, your blood glucose level is considered normal. A number between 140 mg/dL and 199 mg/dL is considered prediabetes, and a number 200 mg/dL or higher signals type 2 diabetes. (7)
Should You Be Tested for Insulin Resistance?
You should be tested for insulin resistance if you’re showing signs of having a high blood sugar level. (3) Again, there’s no specific test to confirm insulin resistance. But if you’re experiencing fatigue, brain fog, or increased hunger, see your doctor. Getting tested may reveal an elevated blood sugar or prediabetes. With an early diagnosis, you can take steps to help reverse the condition and avoid full-blown type 2 diabetes.
RELATED: 7 Blood Sugar Testing Mistakes to Avoid
If you see your doctor for symptoms, your doctor can perform a random blood sugar test.
This may happen if you’re having obvious symptoms of diabetes, and you have risk factors for insulin resistance and diabetes, like obesity, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure. A random blood sugar test can be completed anytime of the day. Results over 200 mg/dL may confirm diabetes. (7)
Can Insulin Resistance Be Prevented or Reversed?
This metabolic condition doesn’t have to progress to prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. Making lifestyle changes can help reverse insulin resistance so that your body can respond properly to insulin. (4)
Lose weight. One study found that losing weight combined with getting regular exercise could improve insulin sensitivity in obese older individuals. (8) Reduce your fat and calorie intake and get physically active. Do a moderate-intensity exercise, like biking or speed-walking, five days a week at minimum. (9)
RELATED: Reversing Diabetes Is Possible Through Weight Loss, Study Finds
Choose activities that you find enjoyable, such as walking, biking, swimming, or playing sports. Losing as little as 10 to 15 pounds may help reverse and prevent insulin resistance. (7)
Eat a low-carb diet. Reducing your intake of carbohydrates may also improve glucose metabolism and reduce insulin resistance. Other research found that eating three low-carb meals in a 24-hour period could reduce post-meal insulin resistance by more than 30 percent. Study participants limited their carbohydrate intake to no more than 30 percent per meal. (10) Although more research is needed to confirm these results, eating a balanced diet that consists of moderate portions of carbohydrates and sugars may improve how your body uses insulin and reverse insulin resistance.
RELATED: 10 Foods That Can Help With Blood Sugar Control
Change your medication with doctor supervision. You may have insulin resistance if you take steroid medication to treat pain and inflammation. (11) These drugs prompt the liver to release extra glucose, increasing the risk for steroid-induced diabetes. Lowering your dosage or slowly weaning yourself off steroids may improve insulin sensitivity. Speak with your doctor before modifying your medication.
Giving up cigarettes may also reverse insulin resistance. Nicotine can cause your body to produce extra glucose, which makes it harder to control your blood sugar level. (12)
Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night for optimal health. (13) Not getting enough sleep may increase your risk for diabetes or make it harder to control. (14) Speak with your doctor if you’re having trouble sleeping. This may indicate a sleep disorder.
When you’re under stress, your body produces higher amounts of cortisol, which is a stress hormone. (15) This hormone can make your muscles and cells resistant to insulin, resulting in higher blood sugar. As a result, chronic stress may increase your risk for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. (16)
How to Change Your Lifestyle and Diet to Prevent, Manage, or Help Reverse Insulin Resistance
Having insulin resistance doesn’t mean that you’ll develop prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, but this can happen if you don’t make changes to your diet and lifestyle habits.
RELATED: What Makes for a Good Type 2 Diabetes Diet?
Consuming carbohydrates in moderation, prioritizing fitness, and giving up bad habits like smoking not only may help you avoid diabetes but also all the health complications related to the disease, including heart disease, stroke, nerve damage, and vision problems.
Video: Understanding Insulin Resistance and What You Can Do About It
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