What is Insulin Resistance and What Can I Do About It?

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One element of specific note regarding the development of diabetes is insulin resistance. According to the American Diabetes Association, an estimated 50 percent of individuals with insulin resistance and prediabetes will develop type 2 diabetes if they do not implement major changes. Because of its significant influence, learning how insulin resistance develops, knowing its risk factors it, and employing methods of reducing its effect may help limit the prevalence of serious health issues such as diabetes.

The Major Players of Diabetes: Glucose and Insulin

Perhaps the two most important components of diabetes are glucose and insulin. Glucose is a necessary part of healthy bodily function because it is our primary fuel source. Therefore, maintaining an adequate amount of glucose is important. However, if levels become elevated and remain there for an extended period serious issues such as cardiovascular disease, nerve damage, and chronic disease can develop.

Insulin is a hormone that plays an important role, specifically regarding diabetes, as a necessary component of glucose metabolization. When working properly, insulin regulates the amount of glucose in the bloodstream and orchestrates the delivery of glucose to cells and tissues throughout the body. If the body does not properly handle glucose due to insulin-related malfunction such as insulin resistance there is risk for significant dysfunction.

What Is Insulin Resistance?

Insulin resistance develops over time as muscle cells, body fat, and the liver become less responsive to insulin. In response to the decreased receptivity, the pancreas produces additional insulin to trigger the appropriate regulatory response. If the pancreas is forced to continue producing additional insulin, it can become exhausted resulting in an insulin deficiency and subsequent glucose imbalance.

If left untreated, insulin resistance can lead to the development of diabetes. As the body becomes increasingly unresponsive to insulin, blood sugar levels rise. Because of this, insulin resistance is a primary contributor to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance also limits sensitivity to insulin medications meaning that patients with type 2 diabetes who suffer from insulin resistance have greater difficulty managing their condition. Similarly, even though insulin resistance does not contribute directly to the development of type 1 diabetes, type 1 diabetics who are insulin resistant require larger doses of insulin to control their glucose levels. As the severity of insulin resistance increases so too does the amount of insulin medication needed for both type 1 and type 2 diabetics.

Identifying the Risk for Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance can be difficult to diagnose because it does not present distinct symptoms. Insulin resistance is more often recognized only after a patient has been diagnosed with diabetes or another insulin-related condition. Individuals who are aware of the risk factors and signs of insulin resistance may be able be diagnosed and treated prior to the development of more serious conditions such as diabetes. Risk factors and indicators of insulin resistance include the following:

  • A sedentary lifestyle and obesity: Insulin resistance is most often seen among sedentary and overweight populations. Excess weight can influence metabolic function and block cells from effectively using glucose even if insulin levels are properly regulated.
  • Elevated insulin levels: Typically, those with insulin resistance will have notably elevated insulin levels even if their blood sugar remains in an appropriate range.
  • Darkening of the skin: Acanthosis nigricans, a darkening of skin typically seen in crevices such as the back of the neck, groin, elbows, knees, and armpits may be indicative of insulin resistance and prediabetes.
  • Larger waist: Waist size can be a telltale sign of insulin resistance. Studies show that a waist measuring 35 inches or more for women and 40 inches or more for men suggests a greater risk of developing insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome.
  • Lab tests: Elevated blood pressure, increased triglycerides, and a high fasting blood sugar are all indicative of insulin resistance. Be sure to have these areas regularly tested and assessed by a trusted physician.
  • Genetics: Those with an immediate family member, such as a parent or sibling, with type 2 diabetes are more likely to have insulin resistance. Those who are African American, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander, also have an increased risk of developing insulin resistance.

Restoring Insulin Receptivity

The good news is that insulin resistance may be prevented and reversed by implementing appropriate lifestyle changes.

Weight loss through proper diet and exercise is perhaps that best method of improving insulin resistance. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity showed that overweight individuals who lost 10% of their weight through diet and exercise improved insulin sensitivity by upwards of 80%. Other studies found that exercise promotes the use of pathways that allow glucose to be transported and used by muscles without relying on insulin. Although this doesn’t resolve insulin resistance directly, it does improve circulating glucose levels.

Improving sleep quality may also improve insulin resistance. A study presented at the 2015 meeting of the Obesity Society showed that one night of sleep deprivation prompted significant insulin resistance. It was further explained that a lack of sleep such as this had a similar effect on insulin resistance as consuming high-fat foods over a six-month period. This information suggests that maintaining healthy sleep habits and improving sleep quality may help prevent and potentially improve insulin resistance.

Responding Right to Insulin Resistance

Despite their close association, diabetes and insulin resistance are two separate conditions and may develop independently from one another. In many cases, insulin resistance acts as a precursor to diabetic conditions. Therefore, being able to identify insulin resistance early can allow for an effective response that may prevent a diabetic condition. If you are suffering from insulin resistance, you may be able to restore your health and prevent diabetes by implementing healthy lifestyle changes such as regularly exercising, following a healthy diet, and improving sleep quality.


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2. PD Staff. “All About Insulin Resistance.” Professional Diabetes.

3. Roy Taylor. “Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes.” Diabetes 2012 Apr; 61(4): 778-779.

4. Sari Harrar. “Insulin Resistance Causes and Symptoms.” Endocrine Web.

5. Tabák AG, et al. “Prediabetes: A high-risk state for developing diabetes.” Lancet. 2012 Jun 16; 379(9833): 2279–2290.

6. Maria S. Prelipcean, MD. “Signs of Insulin Resistance.” Healthline.

7. Dr. Asquel Getaneh. “Is Diabetes Different From Insulin Resistance?” Everyday Health.

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