What is Insulin Resistance?
(Another post in our ‘What is X?’ series)
What is Insulin Resistance?
When you hear the term “Insulin Resistance,” what comes to mind? Obesity? Diabetes? PCOS?
This condition, which is a sort of cousin to each of the diseases mentioned above, isn’t actually a disease, but it sure as heck makes a lot of diseases a lot worse.
In this post, we’ll share what insulin resistance actually is, how it’s diagnosed, some common medical conditions associated with the condition, and finally, some tips for how to fight it.
But, What Is It?
What is it, if it’s not actually a disease?
Insulin Resistance, also called “impaired insulin sensitivity”, occurs when cells are constantly bombarded by insulin due to chronically elevated blood glucose levels. Over time, the cells can become numb, or resistant, to insulin and it becomes less effective. As insulin’s effectiveness decreases, the pancreas must produce more and more of it to trigger cells to take in the glucose that’s waiting in the bloodstream.The cycle repeats each time you eat, and the pancreas pumps more insulin into your bloodstream. 1
To put it more simply, insulin resistance happens when your cells tune out insulin because they get too used to having so much of it around. When this happens, it takes more and more insulin to get your cells’ attention; they are “resistant” to the insulin.
Because of this spiral of events, insulin resistance can lead to high blood insulin levels, which can cause even more problems. These problems can include fatigue, weight gain, heart disease, fatty liver, and more. 2
As usual, we’ve provided you with some definitions to review before you dive into the rest of the post. Take a quick peek and make sure you understand each of the terms listed below to ensure you’ll get the most out of your read!
- Insulin - A hormone that helps to regulate blood glucose levels by signaling cells to take in glucose from the bloodstream. 3
- Glucose - The medical word for sugar/carbohydrates. 3
- Pancreas - The digestive organ responsible for insulin and digestive enzyme production. 3
- Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) - A condition in which fat builds up in the liver tissue and impairs liver function, which can lead to many health problems. 4
- Non-alcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH) - A more severe type of fatty liver disease in which there is inflammation and/or cell damage that can lead to scarring, fibrosis, or even cancer. 4
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) - A medical condition that causes the ovaries to produce abnormally high levels of androgen hormones and multiple small cysts ( immature follicles). The condition can cause fertility issues and long term health problems. 5
What Are the Symptoms of Insulin Resistance?
There really aren’t any. 3 While this may seem like good news at first (nobody enjoys symptoms of any kind), it’s actually kind of a bad thing. Insulin resistance is a sneaky problem that can be hard to catch and takes many people by surprise once it is caught.
No symptoms = no warning. Because you can have insulin resistance and not know it, you can worsen other chronic conditions without knowing it too, which can lead to medical complications.
If you think you may have insulin resistance, please go see your doctor and ask for an evaluation. They may order tests, review your medical history, ask about your family’s medical history, and/or perform a physical exam.
How is Insulin Resistance Diagnosed?
There isn’t a single test that can diagnose insulin resistance. Rather, your doctor may order a blood panel that looks at several indicators including overall triglyceride, LDL, and HDL levels.
If they find you have high triglyceride and LDL levels, as well as low HDL levels in addition to high blood glucose levels, then they will probably diagnose you with insulin resistance. 3
You Mentioned Other Conditions?
Some of the most common conditions associated with insulin resistance are, in no particular order:
- Fatty Liver Disease 6
Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) is the most common form of liver disease associated with insulin resistance, but Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis is a possibility as well. 6 The risk for developing NAFLD may increase, or the condition of the liver may worsen more quickly in individuals who already have NAFLD, if the person has insulin resistance. 4
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) 6
PCOS is a hormonal disorder that affects approximately 10% of women of childbearing age. 7 For many women, the condition is driven, at least in part, by insulin resistance, so blood sugar regulation is a big concern for this population.
- Type II diabetes. 6
This form of diabetes occurs when the pancreas is overworked to the point that it cannot secrete enough insulin to adequately move glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells. 1 The demand for insulin just gets too high and the pancreas just can’t keep up. This problem can be greatly exacerbated if the individual also has insulin resistance, since it creates an additional barrier to insulin/glucose regulation.
Each of these conditions is related to insulin resistance in some way, and they’re all made worse by it. So, as you can see, insulin resistance is not something to take lightly.
What Causes Insulin Resistance?
There doesn’t appear to be a single cause of insulin resistance. However, risk factors include overweight/obesity, a family history of insulin resistance and/or Type II Diabetes, and lifestyle choices such as sedentary habits and/or poor diet choices. 3
Genetics and age can both play roles as well. If you’re genetically predisposed, and/or getting older, your risk for developing insulin resistance increases. 1
So basically, anyone can get insulin resistance, and the only way to fight it is with healthy habits.
How is Insulin Resistance Treated?
The great news is that insulin resistance is 100% reversible. Hooray! Let’s talk about some ways to prevent or reduce/eliminate insulin resistance.
If you find out you have insulin resistance and you think it might be weight-related, you can try to decrease your insulin resistance through weight loss. Losing some weight can be very beneficial. 3, 6
The great news is that you don’t even have to lose that much. Research suggests that losing just 5-7% of your body weight can be enough to help stave off insulin resistance. 8
We recognize that pursuing weight loss, even if it’s a “small” amount can be difficult for many people for a number of reasons. This is your affirmation that you are beautiful, valuable, and worthy no matter what size body you live in.
If you think you need to lose weight but you don’t know how to do it in a healthy way, here are some organizations that may be able to help you:
Healthy Diet Choices
We mentioned earlier that diet can play a big role in the development of insulin resistance, which means it can help heal it too! 6
If you want to change the way your body behaves, a good starting point is to change what you put into it. Choosing healthy, unprocessed foods full of fiber, healthy fats, and plenty of protein is the way to go.
While no single diet has proven to be the best method for healing insulin resistance, choosing to eat mostly unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds is a great place to start. For additional fats and protein, choose poultry, fish, minimally processed dairy products, and healthy oils like olive, coconut, and/or canola. 9
Some of us want to lose some pounds and find weight loss relatively easy, but some of us are just “big boned” and can’t or don’t want to lose weight. Your body, your choice!
Take comfort in knowing that you don’t have to be ultra thin to be healthy, you’ve just got to move the body you’re in. And, if you do want to lose weight, exercise can help.
Regardless of your weight status and goals, moving your body is fun and healthy. So, get out on that dance floor, take a yoga class, enjoy a walk in the woods, or do whatever makes moving fun for you.
You can make a big difference in how you feel, and how healthy you are, even if the needle on the scale doesn’t move. Hooray!
Lower Your Stress Levels
Reducing stress can help to correct hormonal imbalances that can drive insulin resistance. 3
Yes, your emotional well-being impacts your physical health. So take care of yourself and try to feel less stressed and more relaxed. This isn’t just something we want to give you “permission” to do, we are telling you you’re worth it, you deserve it, and you need it.
Pick a healthy activity that makes you feel relaxed and happy. Then do it often. Painting, cooking, watching the game, taking a nap…whatever your thing is, make time for it. Your body will thank you.
Getting adequate sleep is also a surprisingly effective lifestyle choice for helping to correct insulin resistance. 3
This is because sleep is important for maintaining hormonal balance, including stress hormones. And, as we learned above, increased levels of stress hormones can antagonize insulin resistance and make it worse.
So, when the little voice in your head says turn off the phone and go to sleep, try listening to it more often than not.
We know that not all people find it easy, or even possible to get adequate sleep. While little things like less screen time before bed, or a dose of melatonin can help most people, they don’t work for everyone.
Here are a couple of resources to help you get more zzz’s if you’re struggling with insomnia:
Many people wonder if insulin resistance should be treated with medication. But, insulin resistance isn’t actually a disease. Since it’s not a disease, but rather an abnormal state that often accompanies and/or drives several diseases, doctors don’t usually prescribe medication to treat it. 6
However, if you have a disease that is driven by insulin resistance, such as PCOS or Type II Diabetes, your doctor may prescribe medicine to help with it as a way to treat the disease. 6
In the absence of a diagnosable condition that’s affected by it, most doctors only recommend lifestyle modifications to treat insulin resistance. 6
The Bottom Line
Insulin resistance is a serious condition that’s sneaky and silent. It can have far-reaching health implications and once discovered, it should be taken very seriously.
The great news though, is that it’s 100% treatable through lifestyle modifications, meaning you have the power, not it. You have the power!
But I Don’t Feel Powerful
If the idea of switching your life around and saying goodbye to your favorite foods, past-times, etc. makes you upset, we get it.
But, you don’t have to eliminate your favorite foods and past-times. A Chinese proverb we like says, “Perfection is 80%”, and we think that’s a wise idea.
Be good 80% of the time, that’s the goal, full stop.
That diet full of fruits, vegetables, and beans should be followed 80% of the time, because 20% is for celebrations like birthdays, holidays, and “self-care.” Make an exercise goal and stick to it 80% of the time because 20% is for Aunt Flo, sleeping in, getting over a cold, and other important rest times.
You don’t have to operate at 100% to be your best self, “Perfection is 80%” anyway.
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plant foods is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to. If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such as a Naturopathic Doctor, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.
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1.Understanding Insulin Resistance | ADA. diabetes.org. https://diabetes.org/health-wellness/insulin-resistance
2. Cleveland Clinic. Insulin Resistance: What It Is, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment. Cleveland Clinic. Published December 16, 2021. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22206-insulin-resistance
3. CDC. The Insulin Resistance–Diabetes Connection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published August 12, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/insulin-resistance.html
4. Medline Plus. Fatty Liver Disease. Medlineplus.gov. Published 2019. https://medlineplus.gov/fattyliverdisease.html
5. Johns Hopkins Staff. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). JHM. February 28, 2022. Accessed August 25, 2023. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos.
6. Mass General Brigham. Insulin Resistance: Causes, Treatments, and How it Effects Weight Loss | Mass General Brigham. YouTube. Published online January 19, 2022. Accessed February 17, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pICzegjGnOY
7. Grassi A. New data on polycystic ovary syndrome - today's Dietitian Magazine. Today's Dietitian. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0517p12.shtml. Published May 2017. Accessed August 29, 2022
8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prediabetes - Your Chance to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published February 22, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/prediabetes.html
9. Diet Tips for Insulin Resistance. Healthline. Published January 8, 2019. https://www.healthline.com/health/diabetes/insulin-resistance-diet#diet-tips
Image 1. Insulin Resistance: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Consequences | Everyday Health. EverydayHealth.com. https://www.everydayhealth.com/type-2-diabetes/insulin-resistance-causes-symptoms-diagnosis-consequences/
10. All gifs obtained from Gify.com; links for each gif are posted below the respective image.