What is Insulin Resistance?

Breaking Down the Science: How Insulin Resistance Impacts Weight, Energy, and Long-term Health

You might be surprised to discover that insulin resistance holds the key to unlocking stubborn weight gain, low energy levels, and long-term health issues.

Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, plays a critical role in regulating our blood sugar levels. However, when our cells become resistant to the effects of insulin, a domino effect sets in, taking a toll on our overall well-being. In this revealing article, I’ll lay out the science behind insulin resistance and explore its far-reaching impact on weight management, energy levels, and long-term health outcomes by breaking down the complex mechanisms at play and sharing strategies to prevent and manage insulin resistance. Keep reading to discover how you can optimize your dietary choices, exercise routines, and lifestyle habits to maintain a healthy weight, sustain energy levels, and cultivate long-term vitality!

Understanding insulin resistance

Insulin resistance is a condition where the body’s cells become less responsive to the effects of insulin. To understand this better, we want to understand the role insulin plays in the body. Insulin is produced by the pancreas and is predominately a storage hormone responsible for tucking glucose (or blood sugar), fats and proteins into the cell to be used. Insulin is the key hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. When we consume carbohydrates they are broken down into glucose, which enters the bloodstream. In response to rising blood sugar levels, the pancreas releases insulin, “unlocking” the cells to welcome in glucose from the bloodstream.

However, in individuals with insulin resistance, the cells fail to respond adequately to insulin’s signals. This means that glucose remains in the bloodstream, leading to chronically high blood sugar levels. To compensate for this, the pancreas produces even more insulin, leading to increased levels of both insulin and glucose in the bloodstream. Over time, this can have detrimental effects on weight management, energy levels, and long-term health.

Insulin resistance can develop due to various factors, including obesity, sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, genetics and certain medical conditions. While some individuals may be genetically predisposed to insulin resistance, lifestyle factors determine its development.

The role of insulin in the body

Insulin is a hormone that plays a crucial role in regulating blood sugar levels and maintaining overall metabolic function. When we consume carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose, which enters the bloodstream. In response to elevated blood sugar levels, the pancreas releases insulin, which acts as a key that unlocks the cells, allowing glucose to enter.

Once inside the cells, glucose is either used for immediate energy production or stored as glycogen for later use. Insulin also signals to the liver to convert any excess glucose into glycogen for storage. By regulating blood sugar levels, insulin helps maintain stable energy levels throughout the day.

In addition to its role in glucose metabolism, insulin also influences fat storage and breakdown. When insulin levels are high, such as after a meal, the body prioritizes storing excess glucose as fat. On the other hand, when insulin levels are low, such as overnight fasting or low-intensity activity, the body switches to burning stored fat for energy.

Causes of insulin resistance

Insulin resistance can develop due to a combination of environmental  and genetic factors. While some individuals may be genetically predisposed to insulin resistance, lifestyle choices most significantly determine its development. Here are some common causes of insulin resistance:

1. Obesity: Excess body fat, especially around the abdomen, increases the risk of insulin resistance. Adipose tissue releases inflammatory substances that can interfere with insulin signaling, making cells less responsive to glucose uptake.

2. Sedentary lifestyle: Lack of physical activity can contribute to insulin resistance. Regular exercise helps improve insulin sensitivity, allowing cells to better respond to insulin. Exercise also can increase muscle mass, which will increase our tolerance for glucose.

3. Poor diet: A diet high in refined carbohydrates such as breads and pastas, sugary foods and processed foods can lead to insulin resistance. These foods cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels, putting strain on insulin production and signaling.

4. Chronic inflammation: Inflammatory conditions, such as obesity and certain autoimmune disorders, can impair insulin sensitivity.

5. Genetics: Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to insulin resistance. Having a family history of type 2 diabetes increases the risk. These individuals must more carefully monitor their lifestyle to avoid a diagnosis themselves.

6. Medications: Some medications can worsen insulin resistance or even induce diabetes. The most commonly prescribed ones are some anti-hypertensives, some lipid lowering medications and steroids. If you notice worsening blood sugar levels in the absence of other factors listed above it is worth consulting with your doctor to see if you can switch to a different class of medication that is not associated with impaired insulin and glucose sensitivity. (6,7)

Signs and symptoms of insulin resistance

Insulin resistance often develops gradually and may not present any noticeable symptoms in the early stages. However, as the condition progresses, certain signs and symptoms may become apparent. Here are some common signs and symptoms of insulin resistance:

1. Weight gain: Insulin resistance can make it difficult to lose weight or lead to unexplained weight gain, particularly around the abdominal area.

2. Fatigue and low energy levels: Fluctuating blood sugar levels can result in energy crashes and feelings of fatigue throughout the day.

3. Increased hunger and cravings: Insulin resistance can disrupt appetite regulation, leading to increased hunger, particularly for sugary and higher carbohydrate foods.

4. Difficulty concentrating: Unstable blood sugar levels can affect cognitive function, leading to difficulty concentrating and mental fog.

5. Skin changes: Insulin resistance can cause skin issues such as dark patches (acanthosis nigricans) and skin tags.

If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and guidance.

What does insulin resistance mean for weight loss?

Insulin resistance and weight loss resistance often go hand in hand. When cells become resistant to insulin’s signals, glucose remains in the bloodstream instead of being taken up by the cells. To compensate for this, the pancreas produces more insulin, leading to elevated levels of both insulin and glucose in the bloodstream.

High insulin levels promote fat storage and inhibit the breakdown of stored fat. This means that even if you’re consuming fewer calories, your body may still store excess fat due to insulin resistance! It’s incredibly frustrating and a primary reason behind those who cannot seem to lose weight no matter how ‘hard’ they diet.
Furthermore, insulin resistance can disrupt appetite regulation, leading to increased hunger and cravings for high-carbohydrate and sugary foods, further contributing to weight gain and negative impacts from yo-yo dieting. If you’ve ever gone on a restrictive diet, not lost weight, then gained even more after cravings drove you to understandably throw in the towel, insulin resistance might be behind your lackluster results.

To effectively manage weight in the presence of insulin resistance, it’s important to focus on strategies that improve insulin sensitivity. This includes adopting a balanced diet, engaging in regular movement, managing stress levels, and getting adequate sleep.

Impact of insulin resistance on energy levels

Insulin plays a vital role in energy metabolism. When blood sugar levels are stable, and insulin sensitivity is optimal, the body efficiently converts glucose into energy. However, in individuals with insulin resistance, glucose remains in the bloodstream, leading to fluctuating blood sugar levels.

These fluctuations can result in energy crashes and feelings of fatigue throughout the day. The cells may struggle to efficiently use glucose for energy, contribute to feelings of fatigue and low energy levels.

To sustain energy levels in the presence of insulin resistance, it’s important to focus on stabilizing blood sugar levels. This can be achieved through a balanced diet that includes high amounts of produce, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Regular exercise, stress management, and adequate sleep also play crucial roles in maintaining optimal energy levels.

Long-term health effects of insulin resistance

Insulin resistance is not just a concern for weight management and energy levels; it also has significant implications for long-term health. When insulin resistance persists over time, it can contribute to the development of several chronic conditions, including:

1. Type 2 diabetes: Insulin resistance is a precursor to type 2 diabetes. When the pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin to compensate for insulin resistance, blood sugar levels remain consistently high, leading to the development of diabetes.

2. Cardiovascular diseases: Insulin resistance is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke. Elevated insulin levels can lead to high blood pressure, inflammation, and the accumulation of plaque in the arteries.

3. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): Insulin resistance is a common feature of PCOS, a hormonal disorder that affects women. PCOS is characterized by irregular menstrual cycles, ovarian cysts, and insulin resistance.

4. Certain types of cancer: Insulin resistance has been linked to an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer, including breast, colon, and pancreatic cancer. Elevated insulin levels promote cell growth and proliferation, which can contribute to the development and progression of cancer.

5. Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia: Insulin freely cross the blood-brain barrier and plays an important role in brain health. There as been a long observed association between type 2 Diabetes and development of Alzheimer’s and Dementia. One study showed that there is an average 25% increase in risk for every 5 years under 70 that one lives with diabetes (8). Given the median age of Type 2 Diabetes diagnosis in the United States was 46 in the year 2000 (9), the risk of developing Alzheimer’s is very high in the Gen X population. Current research suggests that changes in insulin signaling, exacerbated by insulin resistance, may accelerate brain aging, affect neuroplasticity and may impact neurodegeneration.

Managing and reversing insulin resistance

While insulin resistance is a complex condition, it is possible to manage and even reverse its effects. Here are some strategies that can help improve insulin sensitivity:

1. Adopt a nutrient-rich diet: Focus on whole, unprocessed foods that are rich in lean proteins, healthy fats, and ample in produce. These will lower blood sugar while supplying key nutrients needed for proper insulin signaling.  Limit the consumption of refined sugars and carbohydrates, which can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. Most do not need to be keto to see improvements, but reducing one’s total daily carbohydrate intake by 50% is usually needed. For more details on creating a plate to reduce blood sugar, click here.

2. Engage in regular physical activity: Exercise helps improve insulin sensitivity by increasing muscle mass, reducing body fat, and enhancing glucose uptake by the cells. Aim for a combination of walking and bodyweight training for resistance if you’ve been sedentary. If you need additional guidance, schedule a discovery call to learn more about your own customized nutrition and fitness plan.

3. Manage stress levels: Chronic stress can contribute to insulin resistance, which is a double whammy! Incorporate stress management techniques into your daily routine. Client favorites: playing with pets, going for a walk after work, yoga, regular meet-ups with a friend, and going to comedy clubs on the weekend. Explore what fills you with joy and releases tension and make it a priority to incorporate more of this into your life.

4. Get adequate sleep: Poor sleep quality and duration have been linked to insulin resistance. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night to support optimal metabolic function. Seek a sleep specialist to be tested for sleep apnea if you 1) snore, 2) feel unrested despite having sufficient sleep or 3) sleep with your mouth open. Some dentists specialize in sleep apnea and can create an appliance which can be as effective as a CPAP in some instances, but you will need to be properly assessed to determine what is right for you.

5. Maintain a healthy weight: Losing excess weight, especially abdominal fat, can significantly improve insulin sensitivity. Focus on gradual and sustainable weight loss through a combination of lifestyle changes to your movement, food choices, and stress management.

6. Consider medication if necessary: In some cases, healthcare professionals may prescribe medication to manage insulin resistance and blood sugar levels. This should be done under the guidance and supervision of a healthcare professional.

It’s important to note that managing insulin resistance requires a holistic approach and may require ongoing lifestyle changes to maintain optimal health.

Conclusion: Taking control of your health and reversing insulin resistance

Insulin resistance is a complex condition that can have far-reaching effects on weight management, energy levels, and development of chronic disease. By understanding the science behind insulin resistance and implementing strategies to improve insulin sensitivity, you can take control of your health and well-being.

Through a nutrient-dense diet, regular movement, stress management, and adequate sleep, you can optimize your body’s response to insulin and promote stable blood sugar levels. By doing so, you can not only manage weight and sustain energy levels but also reduce the risk of developing chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s and certain types of cancer.

Remember, managing insulin resistance requires a holistic approach and ongoing commitment to healthy lifestyle habits. Consult with a healthcare professional for personalized guidance and support on your journey to improved insulin sensitivity and long-term vitality.

References:

  1. American Diabetes Association. Insulin resistance and prediabetes. Retrieved from [https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes/medication-management/insulin-other-injectables/insulin-resistance](https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes/medication-management/insulin-other-injectables/insulin-resistance)
  2. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar. Retrieved from [https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/carbohydrates-and-blood-sugar/](https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/carbohydrates-and-blood-sugar/)
  3. Mayo Clinic. Insulin and weight gain: Keep the pounds off. Retrieved from [https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetes/expert-answers/insulin-and-weight-gain/faq-20058124](https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetes/expert-answers/insulin-and-weight-gain/faq-20058124)
  4. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Insulin resistance and prediabetes. Retrieved from [https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/what-is-diabetes/prediabetes-insulin-resistance](https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/what-is-diabetes/prediabetes-insulin-resistance)
  5. World Journal of Diabetes. Insulin resistance and its consequences on metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Retrieved from [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2680837/]
  6. Lithell, H O. “Effect of antihypertensive drugs on insulin, glucose, and lipid metabolism.” Diabetes care vol. 14,3 (1991): 203-9. doi:10.2337/diacare.14.3.203
  7. LaPreze, J. Robinson, A. “Detecting and Managing Drug-Induced Diabetes” US Pharm. 2021;46(11):18-30. Retrieved from [https://www.uspharmacist.com/article/detecting-and-managing-druginduced-diabetes]
  8. Barbiellini Amidei C, Fayosse A, Dumurgier J, et al. Association Between Age at Diabetes Onset and Subsequent Risk of Dementia. JAMA. 2021;325(16):1640–1649. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.4001
  9. Koopman, R. J., Mainous, A. G., 3rd, Diaz, V. A., & Geesey, M. E. (2005). Changes in age at diagnosis of type 2 diabetes mellitus in the United States, 1988 to 2000. Annals of family medicine3(1), 60–63. https://doi.org/10.1370/afm.214
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