Insulin resistance is a condition in which your body’s cells become less sensitive to insulin over time. Your pancreas responds by making even more insulin. It happens over many years and can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Certain lifestyle choices can prevent or improve insulin resistance.
Insulin is a hormone that controls the amount of sugar in your blood.
Having high amounts of insulin in your body can result in obesity.
Insulin resistance is when your body’s cells stop paying attention to insulin.
Years down the road, insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Several lifestyle factors can prevent or improve insulin resistance.
What is insulin?
Insulin is an essential hormone that controls the amount of sugar in your blood. A cluster of cells in your pancreas called islets make insulin and then release it into your bloodstream at specific times. Insulin acts like a key that opens up your body’s cells to allow sugar to enter. The cells then use this sugar as fuel.
When you eat carbohydrate-rich foods, your body breaks the carbs down into simple sugars and converts them to glucose. Glucose is used by all cells and is your body’s main energy source. Without insulin, the carbohydrates you eat can’t be used to fuel your body.
The connection between insulin and weight
When you eat more carbohydrates than you need, your pancreas senses that and releases higher amounts of insulin into your blood. Insulin takes the extra sugar that can’t be used at the moment and stores it in your fat cells. This leads to weight gain.
When sugar in the blood is high, insulin is also high, and fat storage increases. When blood sugar levels start to decrease, the amount of insulin decreases too, and less energy is stored as fat. Eating fewer carbohydrates equates to less stored fat.
Insulin resistance basics
After many years of high insulin levels in your blood, your cells stop paying attention to it and become resistant to insulin. Your pancreas responds to this by making even more insulin. This leads to a condition called insulin resistance.
For a while, the increased insulin does its job, though it leads to extra fat storage. As your cells become more resistant, and insulin struggles to do its job, more sugar stays in the bloodstream. Sugar in the bloodstream can’t be used for energy and it causes damage to blood vessels over time. It can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes.
A recent study suggested that up to 40% of young adults in the United States have insulin resistance.
Who is at risk for insulin resistance?
While it still isn’t fully understood, scientists suspect a genetic link because it tends to run in families. Insulin resistance is also more common in people of African American, Alaskan Native, Pacific Island, American Indian, or Latino descent.
Other risk factors include:
- Overweight or obesity.
- Age 45 and up.
- Physical inactivity.
- A history of heart disease, stroke, gestational diabetes, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
How to prevent or improve insulin resistance
The key to preventing insulin resistance and keeping the weight off is to control how much insulin your body releases. If insulin levels are controlled, then cells are less likely to become resistant and less energy will be stored as fat.
There are a few ways you can lower the amount of insulin your body releases into your blood:
Keep your carbohydrates low. When you eat fewer carbs, your body responds automatically by releasing less insulin. Lower amounts of insulin can result in less fat storage and a decreased chance of your cells becoming insulin resistant. Lowering your intake of carbohydrates can help reduce your insulin response and help you lose weight.
Exercise daily. Engaging in cardiovascular exercises, like biking or walking, will burn more glucose and store less of it as fat.
Get some shut-eye. Getting enough quality sleep can help. Sleep deprivation has been connected to high blood sugar and more insulin secretion in the body.
Make dinner a lighter-carb meal. When you sleep, your body normally uses your fat stores as fuel. If you eat a lot of carb-heavy foods late in the day, your body will burn some of it through the night and store the rest as fat. Eat fewer carbs at dinner to avoid extra fat storage.
Your genetics determine how easily your body stores excess energy as fat and how susceptible you are to insulin resistance. Unfortunately, you can’t do anything about your genetics, but the good news is that you can delay or prevent insulin resistance with your lifestyle choices. Lowering your carbohydrate intake, engaging in daily exercise, eating more of your carbohydrates earlier in the day, and getting some solid sleep are all things that can help improve insulin resistance.
- American Diabetes Association. Genetic Insulin Resistance Is a Potent Regulator of Gene Expression and Proliferation in Human iPS Cells.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The Impact of Poor Sleep on Type 2 Diabetes.
- Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. Insulin Resistance and Cardiometabolic Risk Profile Among Nondiabetic American Young Adults: Insights From NHANES.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Insulin Resistance & Prediabetes.
- Nursing Made Incredibly Easy. Insulin basics: Nursing made Incredibly Easy.