Insulin Resistance

Insulin Resistance

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that is essential to regulate blood glucose levels. When you consume food, your body breaks it down into glucose, which enters the bloodstream. Insulin helps cells in your muscles, fat, and liver absorb glucose from the blood to be used for energy or stored for future use. This process ensures that blood glucose levels remain within a healthy range.

Insulin resistance occurs when cells in your muscles, fat, and liver do not respond effectively to insulin. As a result, glucose is not efficiently absorbed by the cells, leading to elevated blood glucose levels. To compensate, the pancreas produces more insulin, resulting in a condition known as hyperinsulinemia. Over time, this can lead to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes if not managed properly. Insulin resistance is also associated with other metabolic disorders, including obesity, hypertension, and dyslipidemia.

Insulin resistance is a widespread condition with significant public health implications. According to studies, the prevalence of insulin resistance is notably high among individuals with various metabolic disorders. For instance, it affects approximately 65.9% of people with impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) and 83.9% of those with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) [1]. The condition is also prevalent in people with hypertriglyceridemia and low HDL cholesterol, affecting 84.2% and 88.1% of these populations, respectively. These statistics highlight the extensive reach of insulin resistance and its impact on developing multiple health issues.

Insulin resistance is a key factor in the development of type 2 diabetes. When the pancreas can no longer produce sufficient insulin to overcome the resistance, blood glucose levels rise, leading to diabetes. In addition, insulin resistance is a central characteristic of metabolic syndrome, which includes a cluster of conditions such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels. These conditions collectively increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, stroke, and other serious health problems [2]. Therefore, understanding and addressing insulin resistance is critical for preventing and managing these associated conditions.

What is Insulin Resistance?

1. Mechanism of Insulin Resistance

How Insulin Normally Functions

Insulin is a hormone produced by the beta cells of the pancreas in response to elevated blood glucose levels. Its primary role is to facilitate the uptake of glucose into cells, specifically in muscle, fat, and liver tissues, where it can be used for energy or stored for future use. Insulin binds to insulin receptors on the cell surface, triggering a cascade of events that allow glucose transporters (such as GLUT4) to move to the cell membrane and facilitate glucose entry into the cell. This process helps maintain blood glucose levels within a normal range.

What Happens During Insulin Resistance

When having insulin resistance, cells in the muscles, fat, and liver do not respond effectively to insulin. This means that glucose is not efficiently taken up by these cells, leading to elevated blood glucose levels. To compensate, the pancreas produces more insulin, resulting in hyperinsulinemia. Over time, the pancreas may become unable to produce enough insulin to maintain normal blood glucose levels, leading to conditions such as prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance also disrupts normal metabolic processes, contributing to various metabolic disorders [3].

2. Types of Insulin Resistance

Peripheral Insulin Resistance (Muscles, Fat)

Peripheral insulin resistance occurs in muscle and adipose (fat) tissues. In muscle tissue, insulin resistance impairs the ability of cells to take up glucose, leading to increased glucose levels in the bloodstream. In adipose tissue, insulin resistance reduces the suppression of lipolysis (the breakdown of fats), resulting in the release of free fatty acids into the bloodstream. These free fatty acids can further worsen insulin resistance by interfering with insulin signalling pathways in other tissues, including the liver.

Hepatic Insulin Resistance (Liver)

Hepatic insulin resistance refers to the liver’s reduced ability to respond to insulin. Normally, insulin inhibits gluconeogenesis (the production of glucose from non-carbohydrate sources) and promotes glycogen synthesis in the liver. In hepatic insulin resistance, these processes are disrupted. The liver continues to produce glucose even when insulin levels are high, contributing to hyperglycaemia. In addition, hepatic insulin resistance is associated with increased lipid synthesis, leading to conditions such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and dyslipidaemia. This selective insulin resistance in the liver plays a critical role in developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome [4][5].

Understanding the mechanisms and types of insulin resistance is crucial for developing effective strategies to manage and prevent related metabolic disorders.

Causes of Insulin Resistance

Causes Of Insulin Resistance

1. Genetic Factors

Family History and Genetic Predisposition

Genetic factors play a significant role in developing insulin resistance. Having a family history of diabetes increases the likelihood of developing insulin resistance. While the exact genetic mechanisms are not fully understood, certain racial and ethnic backgrounds are associated with a higher risk of insulin resistance. People who are Black, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, or Indigenous people from Alaska, the continental U.S., and the Pacific Islands are more susceptible to developing this condition [6].

Inherited conditions can also contribute to insulin resistance. For example, myotonic dystrophy and inherited lipodystrophy are genetic disorders that can increase the risk of developing insulin resistance.

2. Lifestyle Factors

Diet (High Carbohydrate and Sugar Intake)

A diet high in carbohydrates, specifically refined carbohydrates and added sugars, is a significant contributor to insulin resistance. Excessive consumption of these foods can lead to frequent spikes in blood glucose levels, requiring the pancreas to produce more insulin. Over time, this can lead to cells becoming less responsive to insulin.

Physical Inactivity

Physical inactivity is a major cause of insulin resistance. Studies have shown that even short periods of inactivity can rapidly induce insulin resistance [7]. For example, research has shown that just 3-5 days of bed rest can lead to developing insulin resistance in healthy volunteers. Physical inactivity affects insulin sensitivity through multiple mechanisms, including:

  • Reduced energy expenditure
  • Dysregulation of lipid homeostasis
  • Decreased muscle glucose uptake
  • Impaired mitochondrial function [8]

Regular physical activity is crucial for maintaining insulin sensitivity and overall metabolic health.

Obesity, Particularly Abdominal Obesity

Excess weight, especially abdominal fat, is strongly associated with insulin resistance. Adipose tissue, particularly visceral fat, produces various inflammatory cytokines and hormones that can interfere with insulin signalling. This creates a vicious cycle where obesity promotes insulin resistance, which in turn can lead to further weight gain.

The relationship between obesity and insulin resistance is complex and involves several mechanisms:

  • Increased free fatty acid release from adipose tissue
  • Chronic low-grade inflammation
  • Altered adipokine production
  • Ectopic fat deposition in liver and muscle tissues [9]

It’s important to note that these factors often interact and reinforce each other. For example, a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to weight gain, which in turn worsens insulin resistance. Similarly, genetic predisposition may influence how a person responds to dietary factors or physical inactivity.

Addressing these lifestyle factors through increased physical activity, a balanced diet low in refined carbohydrates, and maintaining a healthy weight can significantly improve insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other related metabolic disorders.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms And Diagnosis

1. Common Symptoms

Acanthosis Nigricans (Dark, Velvety Skin Patches)

Acanthosis nigricans is a skin condition described by dark, velvety patches, typically found in body folds and creases such as the neck, armpits, and groin. This condition is often associated with insulin resistance and can be an early indicator of the disorder [10].

Skin Tags

Skin tags are small, benign growths that commonly appear on the neck, armpits, and other areas where the skin folds. They are frequently observed in people with insulin resistance and can serve as a visual clue to the presence of the condition [11].

High Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Levels

Insulin resistance is often associated with elevated blood pressure (hypertension) and abnormal cholesterol levels. Specifically, people may have high triglycerides and low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. These changes in blood pressure and lipid profile are part of the metabolic syndrome, which is closely linked to insulin resistance.

Weight Gain, Especially Around the Abdomen

Weight gain, mainly in the abdominal area, is a common symptom of insulin resistance. This type of fat distribution is known as central or visceral obesity and is a significant risk factor for developing insulin resistance and related metabolic disorders.

2. Diagnostic Tests

Blood Glucose Tests (Fasting Glucose, A1C)

  • Fasting Glucose Test: Measures blood sugar levels after an overnight fast. A fasting glucose level of over 100 milligrams per decilitre (mg/dL) may indicate insulin resistance or prediabetes [12].
  • A1C Test: Provides an average blood glucose level over the past 3 months. An A1C level of 5.7% to 6.4% indicates prediabetes, while an A1C level of 6.5% or higher suggests diabetes.

Insulin Levels and Glucose Tolerance Tests

  • Fasting Insulin Level: Measures the amount of insulin in the blood after fasting. Elevated fasting insulin levels can indicate insulin resistance.
  • Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (OGTT): Assesses how well the body processes glucose. After fasting, a person drinks a glucose solution, and blood sugar levels are measured at intervals. Higher-than-normal blood sugar levels at the 2-hour mark can indicate insulin resistance or diabetes.

Other Markers (Triglycerides, HDL Cholesterol)

  • Lipid Profile: Includes measurements of total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. Insulin resistance is often associated with high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol levels.
  • Additional Markers: Other tests may include measurements of blood urea nitrogen (BUN), creatinine, uric acid, and homocysteine levels, which can provide further insights into metabolic health and the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Diagnosing insulin resistance typically involves a combination of clinical findings and laboratory tests. While no single test can definitively diagnose insulin resistance, a comprehensive evaluation of symptoms and test results can help healthcare providers identify and manage the condition effectively.

Complications of Insulin Resistance

Insulin Resistance

1. Short-term Complications

Weight Gain and Difficulty Losing Weight

Insulin resistance can lead to weight gain and make it challenging to lose weight. This occurs due to several mechanisms:

  • High insulin levels promote fat storage, mainly in the abdominal area [13].
  • Insulin resistance can cause increased hunger and cravings, leading to overeating.
  • The body’s inefficient use of glucose for energy can result in fatigue, potentially reducing physical activity.

Elevated Blood Sugar Levels

As insulin resistance progresses, blood glucose levels begin to rise. This occurs because:

  • Cells become less responsive to insulin, reducing glucose uptake [14].
  • The liver may continue to produce glucose even when insulin levels are high, contributing to hyperglycaemia.

These elevated blood sugar levels, while not yet in the diabetic range, can be indicative of prediabetes and may cause symptoms such as increased thirst and frequent urination.

2. Long-term Complications

Type 2 Diabetes

Insulin resistance is a primary precursor to type 2 diabetes. If left untreated, it can progress to diabetes within 10 to 15 years. As the pancreas struggles to produce enough insulin to overcome the resistance, blood glucose levels continue to rise, eventually reaching diabetic levels.

Cardiovascular Diseases (Heart Disease, Stroke)

Insulin resistance significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases:

  • It’s associated with hypertension, dyslipidaemia, and a prothrombotic state, all of which contribute to heart disease and stroke risk.
  • The metabolic consequences of insulin resistance can lead to endothelial dysfunction, further increasing cardiovascular risk.

Liver Disease (NAFLD)

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is strongly linked to insulin resistance:

  • Insulin resistance promotes fat accumulation in the liver.
  • NAFLD can worsen insulin resistance, creating a vicious cycle.

Increased Risk of Certain Cancers

Insulin resistance has been associated with an increased risk of several types of cancer, although the exact mechanisms are still being studied [15].

Alzheimer’s Disease and Cognitive Decline

Emerging evidence suggests a link between insulin resistance and cognitive decline:

  • Insulin resistance may contribute to developing Alzheimer’s disease, sometimes referred to as “type 3 diabetes”.
  • The impaired glucose metabolism and associated vascular changes may affect brain function over time.

Additional long-term complications associated with insulin resistance include:

  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
    • Sleep apnea
    • Increased triglycerides and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
    • Eye issues related to vascular damage

It’s important to note that many of these complications are interconnected and can exacerbate each other. For example, obesity resulting from insulin resistance can worsen insulin sensitivity, while cardiovascular disease can contribute to cognitive decline. Early intervention and management of insulin resistance are crucial to prevent or delay the onset of these serious long-term complications.

Treatment and Management

1. Lifestyle Changes

Diet Changes (Low-Carbohydrate, Ketogenic Diets)

Dietary changes are a cornerstone for managing insulin resistance. Low-carbohydrate and ketogenic diets have been shown to be effective. These diets reduce the intake of carbohydrates, which helps lower blood glucose levels and decrease the demand for insulin. By focusing on high-quality proteins, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables, these diets can improve insulin sensitivity and promote weight loss.

Regular Physical Activity

Regular physical activity is crucial for improving insulin sensitivity. Exercise helps increase energy expenditure, improve muscle glucose uptake, and enhance overall metabolic health. Both aerobic exercises (such as walking, running, and cycling) and resistance training (such as weightlifting) are helpful. Even moderate increases in physical activity can positively affect insulin sensitivity [16].

Weight Loss Strategies

Weight loss, specifically reducing abdominal fat, is essential for managing insulin resistance. Strategies include:

  • Caloric Restriction: Reducing overall calorie intake to promote weight loss.
  • Behavioural Changes: Implementing lifestyle changes such as mindful eating and stress management.
  • Structured Programs: Participating in weight loss programs that provide support and guidance.

2. Pharmacological Treatments

Metformin and Its Benefits

Metformin is a first-line medication for managing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. It works by:

  • Reducing hepatic glucose production.
  • Improving insulin sensitivity in peripheral tissues.
  • Enhancing glucose uptake by muscles.

Metformin is well-tolerated in some people and may have additional benefits, such as weight loss and improved lipid profiles [17].

Newer Medications (GLP-1 Receptor Agonists, SGLT2 Inhibitors)

  • GLP-1 Receptor Agonists: These medications mimic the incretin hormone GLP-1, which increases insulin secretion, reduces glucagon release, and slows gastric emptying. They also promote weight loss and may have cardiovascular benefits.
    • SGLT2 Inhibitors: These drugs work by preventing glucose reabsorption in the kidneys, leading to increased glucose excretion in the urine. They help lower blood glucose levels and have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events and promote weight loss.

Insulin Therapy for Severe Cases

In cases where insulin resistance has progressed to type 2 diabetes and other treatments are insufficient, insulin therapy may be necessary. Insulin can help control blood glucose levels, but it requires careful management to avoid hypoglycaemia and weight gain.

3. Surgical Interventions

Bariatric Surgery for Weight Loss

Bariatric surgery, such as gastric bypass or sleeve gastrectomy, is an effective treatment for severe obesity and insulin resistance. These procedures can lead to significant weight loss and improvements in insulin sensitivity. Bariatric surgery is particularly beneficial for individuals who have not achieved adequate results with lifestyle modifications and pharmacological treatments.

4. Alternative and Complementary Therapies

Supplements and Natural Remedies

Some supplements and natural remedies may help improve insulin sensitivity, although they should be used in conjunction with conventional treatments and under medical supervision. Some of these include:

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Found in fish oil, these can improve lipid profiles and reduce inflammation.
  • Magnesium: Adequate magnesium levels are associated with better insulin sensitivity.
  • Cinnamon: Some studies suggest that cinnamon may help lower blood glucose levels.
  • Berberine: A compound found in several plants, berberine has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood glucose levels.

While these supplements can be beneficial, they should not replace standard medical treatments. Always consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regimen.

Effective management of insulin resistance involves a multifaceted approach that includes lifestyle changes, pharmacological treatments, and, in some cases, surgical interventions. By addressing diet, physical activity, and weight management, people can significantly improve their insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other related complications.

Prevention Strategies

How to Prevent Arthritis?

1. Healthy Eating Habits

Balanced Diet with Low Glycemic Index Foods

A balanced diet that emphasises low glycemic index foods can help prevent insulin resistance. Low glycemic index foods cause a slower and more gradual rise in blood sugar levels, which can help maintain insulin sensitivity. Some strategies include:

  • Choosing whole grains over refined grains
  • Integrating more non-starchy vegetables into meals
  • Choosing fruits with lower glycemic index, such as berries and citrus fruits
  • Including lean proteins and healthy fats in meals to slow down glucose absorption

Reducing Sugar and Refined Carbohydrate Intake

Limiting the consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates is crucial for preventing insulin resistance. This can be achieved by:

  • Avoiding sugary drinks and choosing water or unsweetened beverages
  • Reading food labels to identify hidden sugars in processed foods
  • Choosing whole foods over processed snacks and desserts
  • Gradually reducing added sugars in cooking and baking

2. Regular Physical Activity

Importance of Exercise in Maintaining Insulin Sensitivity

Regular physical activity is vital in preventing insulin resistance and maintaining insulin sensitivity. Exercise helps in several ways:

  • Improves glucose uptake by muscles, reducing blood sugar levels
  • Enhances insulin sensitivity in muscle and fat tissues
  • Helps maintain a healthy weight, which is crucial for insulin sensitivity
  • Reduces inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which contribute to insulin resistance

Recommendations for physical activity include:

  • Try at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week
    • Include resistance training exercises at least twice a week
    • Reduce sedentary time by taking regular breaks to stand or walk, especially if you have a desk job

3. Weight Management

Strategies for Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial for preventing insulin resistance. Strategies include:

  • Calorie balance: Ensure that calorie intake matches energy expenditure
  • Portion control: Use smaller plates and be mindful of serving sizes
  • Meal planning: Prepare meals in advance to avoid unhealthy food choices
  • Mindful eating: Pay attention to hunger and fullness cues, eat slowly, and avoid distractions while eating
  • Regular weigh-ins: Monitor weight regularly to catch any upward trends early

For those who are overweight or obese, even reasonable weight loss (5-10% of body weight) can significantly improve insulin sensitivity.

4. Regular Health Screenings

Importance of Early Detection and Monitoring

Regular health screenings are essential for early detection and monitoring of insulin resistance and related conditions. Recommendations include:

  • Regular check-ups with a healthcare provider, especially for those with risk factors for insulin resistance
  • Routine blood tests to monitor glucose levels, lipid profiles, and other metabolic markers
  • Blood pressure monitoring
  • Waist circumference measurements, as abdominal obesity is strongly linked to insulin resistance

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that everyone over 45 undergo regular diabetes screenings. In addition, testing is recommended before age 45 for individuals with specific risk factors, such as overweight or obesity, high cholesterol levels, a family history of diabetes, or certain ethnicities [18].

Screening tests may include:

  • A1C test: Measures average blood sugar levels over the past 3 months
    • Fasting blood glucose test: Checks glucose levels after an 8-hour fast
    • Oral glucose tolerance test: Measures how the body processes glucose

Early detection of insulin resistance or prediabetes allows for timely intervention, potentially preventing or delaying the onset of type 2 diabetes and other related complications.

By implementing these prevention strategies – focusing on healthy eating habits, regular physical activity, weight management, and regular health screenings – people can significantly reduce their risk of developing insulin resistance and its associated health problems.

Living with Insulin Resistance

Are there Home Remedies for Arthritis?

1. Daily Management Tips

Meal Planning and Portion Control

Effective meal planning and portion control are crucial for managing insulin resistance:

  • Follow a balanced diet emphasising low glycemic index foods, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
  • Use smaller plates to help control portion sizes.
  • Plan meals to avoid unhealthy food choices.
  • Practice mindful eating by paying attention to hunger and fullness cues.
  • Consider using the plate method: fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, a quarter with lean protein, and a quarter with whole grains or starchy vegetables.

Incorporating Physical Activity into Daily Routines

Regular physical activity is essential for improving insulin sensitivity:

  • Try at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week.
  • Include resistance training exercises at least twice a week.
  • Break up sedentary time with short walks or stretching sessions throughout the day.
  • Find enjoyable activities to make exercise a sustainable habit, such as dancing, swimming or cycling.
  • Use a fitness tracker or smartphone app to monitor daily activity levels and set achievable goals.

2. Mental and Emotional Health

Coping with the Diagnosis

Receiving an insulin resistance diagnosis can be challenging. Coping strategies include:

  • Educate yourself about the condition to feel more in control.
  • Set realistic short-term goals to build confidence and motivation.
  • Practice stress-reduction techniques like meditation or deep breathing exercises.
  • Maintain open communication with your healthcare professionals or health coach about your challenges.

Support Groups and Counselling

Seeking support is crucial for managing the emotional aspects of insulin resistance:

  • Join local or online support groups to connect with others facing similar challenges.
  • Consider individual counselling or therapy to address any anxiety or depression related to the diagnosis.
  • Involve family and friends in your management plan for additional support.
  • Participate in diabetes education programs to learn coping strategies and self-management skills.

3. Long-term Outlook

Managing Expectations and Setting Realistic Goals

Living with insulin resistance requires a long-term perspective:

  • Understand that managing insulin resistance is an ongoing process that may require adjustments over time.
  • Set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) for lifestyle changes and health improvements.
  • Celebrate small wins and progress along the way.
  • Be prepared for setbacks and view them as learning opportunities rather than failures.
  • Work with your health coach to develop a personalised long-term strategy.

Additional Considerations for Long-term Management:

  • Regular health screenings: Maintain regular check-ups with your healthcare provider to monitor your condition and adjust treatment as needed.
  • Medication commitment: If prescribed medications like metformin, follow your doctor’s instructions carefully and report any side effects.
  • Continuous education: Stay informed about new developments in insulin resistance management and treatment options.
  • Lifestyle consistency: Strive for consistency in your diet and exercise routines while allowing flexibility to maintain a balanced life.
  • Preventive care: Pay attention to other aspects of health, such as dental care and eye exams, as insulin resistance can affect multiple body systems.

By implementing these daily management strategies, addressing mental and emotional health, and maintaining a realistic long-term outlook, people with insulin resistance can effectively manage their condition and improve their overall quality of life. Remember that living with insulin resistance is a journey, and with the right approach and support, it’s possible to lead a healthy and fulfilling life.


Insulin resistance is a condition where the body’s cells do not respond effectively to insulin, a hormone crucial for regulating blood glucose levels. This condition can lead to elevated blood sugar levels and, if left unmanaged, can progress to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. The primary causes of insulin resistance include genetic factors, lifestyle choices such as a high-carbohydrate diet and physical inactivity, and conditions like obesity, specifically abdominal obesity. Common symptoms include acanthosis nigricans, skin tags, high blood pressure, and weight gain around the abdomen. Diagnosis typically involves blood glucose tests, insulin levels, and other markers like triglycerides and HDL cholesterol.

Treatment and management strategies focus on lifestyle changes, including diet, regular physical activity, and weight loss. Pharmacological treatments such as metformin and newer medications like GLP-1 receptor agonists and SGLT2 inhibitors could also be effective. In severe cases, insulin therapy and surgical interventions like bariatric surgery may be necessary. In addition, alternative therapies, including supplements and natural remedies, can support conventional treatments.

Proactive management and lifestyle changes are essential in preventing and managing insulin resistance. Adopting a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity, and maintaining a healthy weight can significantly improve insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other related complications. It’s important to stay informed about your health and make conscious choices that support your health and wellness.

If you suspect you have insulin resistance or are at risk, seek medical advice and regular check-ups. Early detection and intervention can prevent the progression to more serious conditions. Stay engaged in your health management by monitoring your blood glucose levels, committing to prescribed treatments, and making sustainable lifestyle changes. Remember, managing insulin resistance is a continuous journey, and with the right approach, you can lead a healthy and fulfilling life.

Stay Informed & Inspired with Our Newsletter

Sign up for our newsletter to stay informed about the latest updates, episodes, helpful tips and strategies for diabetes management and holistic wellness.

Share this article with your friends!
Ghamdan, Wellness Coach
Ghamdan, Wellness Coach

I help people with Type 2 Diabetes achieve diabetes remission and avoid complications so they can live healthier, happier, and longer lives.

Leave a Reply