WHAT EXACTLY IS INSULIN RESISTANCE – AND IS IT REVERSIBLE?

If you've heard of insulin resistance, you likely know that the condition is something to do with the various forms of diabetes and blood sugar levels – but you might not be clued up on the ins and outs of everything that the issue entails.

Given how many people will either encounter insulin resistance themselves or have a loved one who comes into contact with it (more than one in 14 people in the UK live with diabetes) it pays to have an understanding.

To get you clued up, WH asked Healthspan’s head of nutrition and regular WH contributor, Rob Hobson, for his insight. Let's get to it.

What does it mean to be insulin resistant?

First up, let’s go back to basics. What is insulin? ‘Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps remove glucose from the bloodstream and move it into your cells, where it is used for energy,’ Hobson says.

Essentially, it is produced when blood glucose levels – aka blood sugar levels – rise, for example, after you eat. The release of insulin helps to lower the blood sugar levels, so they stay within a normal, healthy range.

While insulin resistance is closely associated with obesity, it is possible to be insulin resistant if you are a healthy weight, says Diabetes UK.

‘Insulin resistance occurs when the cells found in the liver, muscle and fat no longer respond well to insulin, and as such the body has difficulty taking up glucose,’ says Hobson.

‘When this happens, your pancreas compensates by making more insulin. If your pancreas can keep making enough insulin to overcome the weak response by cells, then your blood glucose levels can remain healthy.’

But if it can’t…? ‘The next stage is prediabetes, which can occur in people with insulin resistance who can’t produce enough insulin to manage blood glucose levels. Blood sugar levels fall out of the healthy range and, over time, if left untreated, this can result in diabetes.’

What is the main cause of insulin resistance?

Scary stuff, right? But how do you know if you’re at an increased risk? Common factors that may result in you developing insulin resistance include:

  • Having Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Being older that 45 years old
  • Having a sibling or parent with the condition
  • Being physically inactive
  • Having high cholesterol or high blood pressure
  • History of heart disease

Certain medicines, hormonal disorders and sleep problems such as sleep apnea may also contribute to insulin resistance.

How do you know if you’re insulin resistant?

Here’s the tricky part. According to Hobson, there are very few easily identifiable symptoms associated with insulin resistance.

‘A condition known as acanthosis nigricans is thought to be more common in people with insulin resistance and is characterised by dark velvety patches often on the back of the neck, groin and armpits,’ says Hobson. ‘This is thought to be the result of a build-up of insulin in the skin cells.’

If you think you might be dealing with the condition, it is identifiable by professionals – doctors can test for insulin resistance by performing a simple blood test over a few months to compare the results.

‘However, if the condition has advanced to prediabetes then symptoms of blood glucose imbalances may include those similar to diabetes,’ Hobson adds. Think: extreme thirst, being hungry after meals, needing to wee more, feeling more tired than usual or having frequent infections.

Can you reverse insulin resistance?

Reversing or reducing insulin resistance is very much possible. Try the advice below.

1. Keeping more physically active

Regular activity helps the body better keep blood sugar levels in balance. HIIT has been shown to be particularly effective.

2. Losing excess weight

Carrying extra fat – particularly around the waist – is one of the leading causes of insulin resistance. If yours clocks in at more than 35 inches, you’re at a heightened risk. This is because belly fat produces hormones and other substances which can cause inflammation in the body – and inflammation, you guessed it, may trigger insulin resistance.

3. Eating a balanced diet

There’s no such thing as an insulin resistance diet. ‘Just follow the basic principles of healthy eating,’ Hobson says. Which are?

‘Eat plenty of plant foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, wholegrains), which are high in fibre; and include healthy fats (olive oil, oily fish, avocado, nuts, seeds), lean proteins and some dairy or dairy alternative.’

What foods should insulin resistance patients avoid?

‘Your carb intake strongly influences your blood sugar levels, your body breaks carbs down into sugars, mainly glucose. Then, insulin helps your body use and store it for energy. That’s why I’d recommend people to prioritise whole grains over processed ones and refined carbs,’ says Alice Yeates, a nutritional therapist and former diabetes nurse.

Is insulin resistance just diabetes?

No. Insulin resistance is a precursor to prediabetes, which can then lead to diabetes. Managing insulin resistance through interventions such as exercise can prevent it progressing along this path.

For more information and support, visit Diabetes UK.

2023-07-25T13:57:03Z dg43tfdfdgfd