How Insulin Resistance Makes You Sick

Our bodies do a lot for us – more than we’ll probably ever realize – but they can also be delicate and require diligent care. We might believe we’re healthy, for the most part, yet we continue to suffer from odd conditions which seem to pop up here and there. Then again, all these illnesses and symptoms could be pointing to something much more serious.

By Gwen Farrell4 min read
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Insulin resistance is the biggest indicator of the eventual development of type 2 diabetes, but it doesn’t always have to be. Insulin resistance is often manifested by symptoms or illnesses we think may be isolated. But if we pay attention, we can actually uncover how it’s insulin resistance – and not these conditions individually – that is making us sick.

What Is Insulin Resistance?

Insulin is a hormone produced by our pancreas that helps regulate blood sugar levels. When it’s working correctly, our cells respond positively to the insulin as it undergoes the process of converting sugar into energy for our body to use. 

In healthy bodies, the food we eat is broken down into glucose (sugar) to use as energy. Glucose travels through the bloodstream to reach our muscles, fat, and liver, where it will either be used for energy or stored. The glucose in our blood tells our pancreas to produce insulin, which helps the glucose to enter the other cells. Once the glucose has moved from the blood into the muscle, fat, and liver cells, and our blood sugar drops, the pancreas stops making insulin. As long as our cells are reacting as they should to the insulin already being produced and changing that sugar into energy, everything’s fine. 

But, when things aren’t working well, our muscle, fat, and liver cells respond negatively – they can’t respond to the insulin and take in the glucose, which provokes our pancreas to produce even more insulin to compensate. This is insulin resistance, which can cause or exacerbate the following seven health issues.

1. High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is also known as hypertension. High blood pressure places us at higher risk for kidney and heart failure, liver disease, and stroke. 

But what correlation does hypertension share have insulin resistance? Well, insulin resistance effectively stimulates our sympathetic nervous system, which is known for provoking our body’s fight or flight responses. Our sympathetic nervous system being over-stimulated motivates our heart and arteries to pump and constrict more intensely, causing blood pressure to spike. A sign of high blood pressure is usually associated with obesity, which is a hallmark of insulin resistance. 

Insulin resistance is the biggest indicator of the eventual development of type 2 diabetes.

2. Fatty Liver

Our liver is an extremely vital organ that performs tons of functions for us, namely, removing toxins from our system, clotting our blood, processing glucose and producing bile, fighting infections, and many more. When our liver is encumbered by an unhealthy amount of fat, all of these functions become severely impaired. A fatty liver can result from a poor diet – which can exacerbate insulin resistance, and vice versa – and produce significant health complications. Because our liver is heavily involved in the process of managing glucose levels, a healthy liver can better regulate blood sugar levels, helping insulin resistance.

3. Swollen Extremities

Insulin resistance prompts our kidneys to hold on to fluids, instead of releasing them. This water retention can cause our fingers, legs, arms, ankles, and feet to become swollen and puffy. This same mechanism can increase an individual’s risk of developing gout and kidney stones.

4. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome

One of the biggest and most serious side effects of PCOS is the development of insulin resistance. We rarely consider insulin resistance as the precedent for developing PCOS, though some researchers argue it can be. The two are inextricably linked – an estimated 30-40% of women who have PCOS also have insulin resistance. 

An estimated 30-40% of women who have PCOS also have insulin resistance. 

Increased insulin levels, brought about by the pancreas’ overproduction of insulin, are believed to contribute to the plethora of metabolic issues introduced to the system by PCOS, which some researchers argue can result in a PCOS diagnosis and not the other way around. Whichever develops first can be impossible to pinpoint in many cases, but the two conditions go hand-in-hand with further complications, like obesity and infertility.

5. Skin Conditions

While insulin resistance obviously affects much of what’s happening on the inside of our bodies, one of its biggest markers can be the impact it has outside of the body. Developing skin infections, acne, skin tags, or specifically a condition called acanthosis nigricans (characterized by dark patches on the skin) are all textbook signs of insulin resistance. 

Excess production of insulin can also lead to increased production of testosterone, causing pores to become clogged and skin to become greasy or acne-prone. Additionally, blood circulation becomes impaired by insulin resistance, meaning sweat glands can become inhibited and result in increased skin irritation.

6. Poor Sleep Quality

Individuals with insulin resistance often suffer from other complications like sleep apnea or a sleep pattern that’s disturbed and inconsistent. When an individual’s breathing pattern is paused or interrupted, as is the case in sleep apnea, carbon dioxide levels increase, resulting in high blood sugar levels and impaired insulin. A staggering 71% of people with sleep apnea also have type 2 diabetes, according to the American Sleep Association.

7. Obesity

The connection between excess body weight and insulin resistance seems an obvious one to most of us, but if we look further and more in-depth it can become complicated. Increased insulin production leads to excess fat being stored from the extra glucose that’s unable to be processed, known as glucose tolerance. This reaction leads to increased fat deposits in the body, especially prevalent in the abdominal area. Belly fat in particular produces hormones that result in inflammation, also believed to be a contributing factor in insulin resistance. 

Exercise helps our muscles process glucose and makes our cells more sensitive to insulin.

Obesity and insulin resistance share in a vicious cycle – insulin resistance often makes individuals feel sluggish and fatigued, resulting in decreased physical activity. Because exercise helps our muscles process glucose and makes our cells sensitive to insulin, decreased physical activity means our insulin isn’t getting those benefits, contributing to our cells’ increased resistance.

Treating Insulin Resistance Effectively

If left untreated insulin resistance can result in the development of type 2 diabetes – but it doesn’t have to. As you’ve probably guessed, a better diet and more exercise can help manage its effects and prevent the development of diabetes. When we expend energy through exercise and lose body fat, our muscles can more easily process glucose and reduce inflammation

In a diet that’s heavy with saturated fats and processed carbohydrates (which our bodies digest quickly, causing blood sugar to spike and our pancreas to produce more insulin), we’re practically begging our cells not to be able to respond to insulin production correctly. A diet high in fiber, lean protein, whole grains and foods with lower glycemic indexes prepares our cells better to adequately respond to insulin production compared to those easier-to-digest foods.

Closing Thoughts

Insulin resistance can really only be confirmed through a blood test, but any of these symptoms or complications might push us to examine our health sooner rather than later. Not only is insulin resistance a serious condition on its own, but it’s the precursor to developing diabetes, which fundamentally changes how our body turns the food we eat into energy. Just because we’re insulin resistant doesn’t mean we’ve already developed diabetes, but reversing those effects requires the kind of time, attention, and energy that we should always be giving our health.

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