Understanding Insulin Resistance

Women's Health | | Natasha Weiss
5 min read

Blood sugar has been one of the hottest topics in the world of health and wellness lately. Blood sugar regulation doesn’t just apply to people with diabetes or who are pre-diabetic. Everyone has blood sugar and can benefit from understanding how it works so they can better care for their body.  

One crucial component of blood sugar is the hormone insulin. The term “insulin resistance” is thrown around a lot in the blood sugar conversation, but can be confusing to grasp. We’re here to clear up the confusion and break down insulin resistance so you can make the best choices for your health. 

What is insulin?

Before you can understand insulin resistance, you have to get to know the hormone insulin and what it does in your body. It does this by turning food into energy and managing blood sugar levels. 

Insulin is a hormone that is made by your pancreas and is essential for energy regulation in the body. Sugar, in this case glucose, is an essential fuel source for the body. Glucose is found in the food you eat but is also stored in the body and released over time. 

Insulin is often compared to a key, while the cells in your body are the doors that it opens. When insulin opens the doors to your cells, it moves glucose from your bloodstream into those cells so that the glucose can be used for energy. 

Insulin also tells the liver to store blood sugar so that it can be used later. When insulin levels are low, which can happen if you haven’t eaten for a while, it signals to the liver to release this stored blood sugar so that energy is available.

As you can imagine, insulin is essential for your health and day-to-day well-being. Several health conditions can impact your body’s ability to use insulin effectively, one being insulin resistance. 

Insulin resistance 101

When too much blood sugar enters the bloodstream, the pancreas works hard to get more insulin into the body so that it can move more blood sugar into your cells. When this happens on a regular basis, cells become less responsive or stop responding to insulin. This is insulin resistance. 

This creates a slippery slope for further health complications. It can be incredibly damaging to have too much blood sugar in the bloodstream, potentially affecting your tissues, organs, blood vessels, and nerves. 

Researchers and medical providers aren’t exactly sure what causes insulin resistance, but some factors may increase your risk of developing it:

  • Leading a sedentary lifestyle
  • Having a family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Having excess body fat (especially around the belly)

While excess body fat can be a risk factor, it’s important not to make assumptions based on appearance. Not everyone who has insulin resistance is overweight, and it’s certainly not something that can be diagnosed by looking at someone. Weight is also something that needs to be looked at through an appropriate sociocultural lens.

People with insulin resistance often display no symptoms. Some people with prediabetes may develop a condition called acanthosis nigricans, which can cause darkened skin and skin tags (small skin growths) in the armpit, or on the neck.

Long-term risks of insulin resistance

The biggest risk of insulin resistance is developing type 2 diabetes. This is why people with insulin resistance are often considered prediabetic. 

Over time, insulin resistance can increase your risk of: 

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar)
  • Hyperuricemia (high uric acid levels in blood), which can lead to kidney issues
  • Endothelial dysfunction (coronary heart disease)
  • Heart disease

Insulin resistance may also lead to metabolic syndrome, which is a group of conditions that can lead to further health issues like strokes and cardiovascular disease.  

During late pregnancy, every pregnant person has some insulin resistance. You may be more likely to develop gestational diabetes if you have insulin resistance before you get pregnant.

There is also a link between PCOS and insulin resistance. People with polycystic ovarian syndrome are often insulin resistant, which again can increase their risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

It’s important to note that insulin resistance that can lead to type 2 diabetes is different from type 1 diabetes, where the body doesn’t make enough insulin on its own. This is thought to be an autoimmune disease.

There is about a 50% chance that people with insulin resistance will go on to develop type 2 diabetes within 5 to 10 years. Luckily insulin resistance can often be reversed, preventing long-term complications. 

Treating insulin resistance

How do you know if you have insulin resistance? There’s no one specific test, but there are some other tests that may indicate insulin resistance like high “bad” cholesterol (LDL), low “good” cholesterol (HDL), high triglycerides, and high blood sugar levels. 

Insulin resistance can be reversed in many cases with lifestyle changes, preventing long-term complications. These changes can help you become more insulin-sensitive so that your cells can better absorb blood sugar, using less insulin in the process.

Another helpful tool when learning how to manage your blood sugar is wearing a continuous glucose monitor. While these tools are typically only used for people with diabetes, they can be used in the prediabetic stage to help you see what causes your insulin levels to fluctuate, and what lifestyle changes help to stabilize your blood sugar. 

These are some of the easiest ways you can manage your blood sugar and combat insulin resistance: 

  • Start your meals with fiber-rich foods like veggies or legumes
  • Try drinking 1-2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in water about ten minutes before eating
  • Managing your weight if that is a factor for you
  • Aim to have a protein-rich (about 30 grams) savory breakfast instead of a sweet one
  • Managing stress levels
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Getting enough physical activity

Insulin resistance can have a huge impact on your overall health and longevity. It’s important to speak to your healthcare provider if you suspect you may have it or if you have a family history of type 2 diabetes. 

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