What is Insulin Resistance?

What is Insulin Resistance?

Quick overview of what you’ll learn from this blog post:

  • What is insulin resistance and how it works
  • Common symptoms of insulin resistance
  • The connection between insulin resistance & prediabetes risk
  • Tips to lower your risk of prediabetes & insulin resistance

The Basics on Insulin Resistance

Insulin is a pro-peptide borne from the pancreas. In the most general sense, it is responsible for regulating blood sugar (glucose) in the body. Seems straightforward, right? Except that, when it comes to managing blood glucose levels, the margin for error is rather slim.

Too much or too little are both equally problematic and create the potential for some pretty severe health hazards.

The stakes are high, and each system of the body must do its part to keep glucose at Goldilocks status: just right.

Here’s roughly how it’s supposed to work:

  • Most food you eat is broken down into blood sugar.
  • That blood sugar is just sort of drifting aimlessly in the bloodstream.
  • For most cells, glucose requires a transporter (a door) to enter. The body takes note and alerts the pancreas, which in turn deploys insulin to escort glucose toward various cell entrances, where glucose will serve as an energy source.
  • Of course, often we take in more fuel than is needed. If not for insulin, this excess glucose would be left to loiter in the bloodstream. Instead, it is distributed throughout the body: to muscles where it can be turned into glycogen, and to the liver and stored for a rainy day.
  • The glycogen in our muscle cells is the healthy store of sugar our body uses for energy during physical activity. The more we use a muscle group, the more we deplete its energy source.
    • Regular exercise increases the capacity for glycogen storage in the muscles and liver, which allows for extended or improved muscular performance. The muscle cannot fully recover after a significant workload without replenishment.
    • At the same time, if we do not adequately expend glycogen stores, insulin is forced to redirect any new glucose for storage around the body in fat cells.
  • When the distribution of glucose throughout the body is done, blood sugar decreases. At this point, the bulk of insulin’s work is done, and levels return to baseline.
  • Once insulin calls it a day, the liver takes note and releases any stored blood sugar to give insulin a break and tie you over until your next meal, when the whole process repeats.
Insulin Resistance Diagram

It doesn’t take an endocrinologist to recognize the nuances of this system and how quickly it can break down if one of the many cogs in the metabolic machine were to fall out of place. Thus, insulin resistance is best defined by the body’s failure to facilitate any part of the process, it is insulin resistance.

Common Symptoms of Insulin Resistance

So, what’s so bad about rising blood sugar? Certainly, we can understand the potential danger associated with eating in and maintaining a constant glucose surplus. But how this manifests, at least initially, is perhaps surprising.

For starters, initial symptoms of insulin resistance are fairly mild. The spike and crash phenomenon which causes food cravings, anxiety, and feelings of hangry-ness are not exclusive to IR and can easily be mistaken for something else. Only once sugar reaches prediabetic levels is it common for individuals to develop darkened skin in the armpit or on the back and sides of the neck, a condition called acanthosis nigricans. Many small skin growths called skin tags often also appear in these same areas.

While individuals with high blood glucose levels are mostly asymptomatic, there are a handful of studies linking insulin resistance and prediabetes to an eye condition called retinopathy. High blood sugar levels are also at a higher risk of producing too many AGEs, which can then build up in the body.

When protein or fat combines with sugar in the bloodstream, harmful compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are generated in a process called glycation. AGEs can also form in food before it is consumed, especially foods cooked at extremely high temperatures (grilled, fried, toasted, etc.).

The body has a system in place to filter AGEs, including antioxidant and enzymatic activity, however, those systems can become overwhelmed. AGEs begin to trickle in and build up in the body. If left to accumulate, high levels are causal to oxidative stress and a source of inflammation. Chronic inflammation is correlated with a variety of very serious health issues including diabetes, heart disease, renal failure, Alzheimer’s disease, and general accelerated aging.

Insulin Resistance & Prediabetes

Science cannot say for certain why insulin resistance takes place, but it is logical to consider a connection to diet and body composition as potential causal factors. Visceral fat – that which is present in or around the abdomen and organs – is often a marker for insulin resistance. Research indicates, for men with a 40-inch waist and women with a 35-inch waist, resistance is much more prevalent.

That said, there are genetic and potentially cultural exceptions. For instance, in Asian Americans, the risk of insulin resistance is significantly higher. This is true even for those individuals who do not also have a high body mass index. One thought behind this research is the potential role inflammation plays in insulin-resistant individuals.

Lowering Your Risk of Prediabetes and Insulin Resistance

Fortunately, there are ways to treat both insulin resistance and subsequent blood glucose levels. A well-balanced diet, routine physical activity, and efficient sleep are all easy things we can control to positively impact our health and normalize our levels.

If you simply want to better understand how your current lifestyle affects your glucose levels, a convenient continuous glucose monitor (CGM) is a great place to start. You can further understand your overall risk for insulin resistance and diabetes by following up with an at-home test to establish your baseline. From there, work with a health care provider to decide the best course of treatment for you.

Looking for other options? Anti-diabetic medications work by addressing the body’s response to insulin, which in turn lowers blood glucose levels. If you’re not diabetic, you have options, too. Prescription products like Metformin have demonstrated the ability to reduce blood sugar levels, as well as protective effects against several other age-related diseases.

You can learn more about each of these options at agelessrx.com.