What Is Insulin Resistance? Investigating This Diabetes-Related Issue


10.22.2019

If you’ve ever witnessed a production line in action, you know that one malfunctioning part causes a chain reaction that affects everything else. Even the tiniest change can result in an entirely different end product—for better or for worse. Our bodies operate in a similar, though not identical, manner.

While there are many examples, insulin resistance is one of the most notable. Developing this health condition can lead to prediabetes, diabetes, and numerous other adverse effects. It’s worth knowing about this issue, because it’s very common.

Though you’ve probably heard of insulin resistance in discussions about diabetes, you might not have a clear understanding. What is insulin resistance, exactly? And how is it different from diabetes? Let’s take a closer look.

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What is insulin resistance?

In order to understand insulin resistance, we first need to explore how insulin typically operates. This hormone is a key player in transforming glucose—a type of sugar—from the food we eat into usable energy. This process is essential, regardless of activity level.

“Even when we’re asleep or just breathing, our body is functioning and metabolizing.”

“Even when we’re asleep or just breathing, our body is functioning and metabolizing,” explains Dr. Satesh Bidaisee, Associate Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at St. George’s University (SGU). “So we constantly require glucose.”

Your cells need a little help to effectively process the glucose that floods your bloodstream after eating. As blood glucose levels rise, your pancreas secretes an appropriate amount of insulin. This hormone helps facilitate the metabolic process, which both returns your blood sugar to normal and stores energy for later use.

Insulin resistance means your body has developed a tolerance that prevents it from using the hormone properly. Your body has to produce more insulin to compensate. But the pancreas can’t keep up forever, and that leads to higher glucose levels that eventually store as fat. This, Dr. Bidaisee explains, starts a problematic cycle.

“The cells in your body remain starved of fuel,” he notes. “Eating more food doesn’t solve the problem because, while you produce more insulin, your body isn’t receiving the consumed source of energy.”

While insulin resistance alone isn’t diabetes or even prediabetes, it is a precursor. Without intervention, it eventually develops into type 2 diabetes. Also note that type 1 diabetes is an entirely different story. Individuals with this disease aren’t able to produce insulin at all.

Why is insulin resistance a problem?

To be clear—having insulin resistance does not mean further health issues are inevitable. But it does increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a growing problem with numerous other consequences.

“Insulin resistance, being part of the cause of diabetes, is also potentially reflective of the global story as well,” Dr. Bidaisee offers. He notes that rates of heart disease, cancer, and stroke have also been rising.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) actually identifies both stroke and heart disease as complications of diabetes. And there are numerous others. Over time, diabetes can also increase your risk of skin infections, glaucoma and other eye problems, kidney disease, and neuropathy—nerve damage that can cause numbness or weakness in parts of your body.

Neuropathy can be especially troublesome if it isn’t identified early. It’s easy for someone with neuropathy to acquire a wound that becomes infected without realizing it. Severe cases require amputation, which used to be quite common around Grenada. The good news is things have improved drastically since SGU launched a program to help identify the issue early.

“We’re trying to encourage foot care,” Dr. Bidaisee explains. “As a result of that, we’ve seen a reduction in the number of amputations associated with diabetes over the years.”

'We’ve seen a reduction in the number of amputations associated with diabetes over the years.”

What causes insulin resistance?

No one is sure exactly what causes insulin resistance. That said, there are many risk factors experts have identified. Some of the most common lifestyle culprits are being overweight, eating a high-carbohydrate diet, and physical inactivity. There are also risk factors that are out of your control, such as aging and genetics.

“There are even some arguments that infections can lead to insulin resistance sometimes,” Dr. Bidaisee says, “because the inflammation part of the infection plays a role.”

“There are even some arguments that infections can lead to insulin resistance sometimes.”

How can we combat insulin resistance and diabetes?

The good news is many of the risk factors that can contribute to developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes are lifestyle-related. You can control your diet and physical activity level, which are both elements in preventive medicine as a whole. The ADA recommends eating nutritious foods while cutting back on trans fats and added sugar.

As far as fitness goes, don’t think you have to become a marathon runner or power lifter to make exercise part of your routine. Dr. Bidaisee says brisk walking is one of the best forms of physical activity to prevent diabetes by controlling blood sugar. And there’s research to support this recommendation.

There’s also a lot we can do on a global scale. It starts with education, particularly among young people. Type 2 diabetes is increasingly being diagnosed in younger populations, so they need to be aware that they could have insulin resistance they need to address with lifestyle changes.

“If we’re looking at educating tolerable interventions, it will need to be at the adolescent to young-mature-adult phase.”

“If we’re looking at educating tolerable interventions, it will need to be at the adolescent to young-mature-adult phase,” Dr. Bidaisee offers.

Appropriate diabetes-related screenings are also important. While testing for insulin resistance itself isn’t always practical, evaluating glucose tolerance is. Early diagnosis can improve outcomes by helping some people reverse their progression and enabling others to better manage their diabetes. It may even lead to lower health care costs in the long term.

It’s also worth mentioning that testing for diabetes and prediabetes should go hand in hand with other health screenings. Knowing your weight, height, blood pressure, cholesterol, and other metrics will give you a much fuller picture of your overall health. You can’t separate those elements from one another.

“At SGU, we tend to think about the interaction between humans, animals, and the environment,” Dr. Bidaisee offers. “But even internally, there are so many interactions within the body. It’s all connected.”

“But even internally, there are so many interactions within the body. It’s all connected.”

Work toward a healthier world

What is insulin resistance, exactly? It’s an issue that’s fueling the rise in chronic diseases. But it’s also clear there are ways to combat insulin resistance earlier and prevent diabetes. Making changes now can lead to a different, healthier future.

Addressing preventable diseases like diabetes is just one way we can contribute to worldwide wellness. There are many other health issues we can work toward solving. Learn more about them and how you can be part of the solution by reading our article “What Is Global Health? The 6 Biggest Issues You Need to Know About.”

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