Insulin resistance refers to a condition in which cells in the body no longer respond properly to insulin. This has a huge impact on health because of the role that this anabolic hormone plays in glucose metabolism. With insulin resistance, cells, including those in the liver and body fat, begin to ‘resist’ signals sent by insulin. This means that they stop absorbing glucose from the blood to use it as the main fuel source. As a result, blood sugar levels start to rise, causing a variety of health risks, the best known of which is diabetes. However, failing to manage the condition effectively can do more damage than you realize. Here are some of the major risks of prolonged insulin resistance.
- Type 2 Diabetes
The pancreas which produces insulin, respond to resistance by increasing production of the hormone. With prolonged insulin resistance, the amount of insulin needed to regulate blood sugar levels keeps rising. In time, the pancreas suffers from fatigue and cannot meet the demands for insulin. This leads to the onset of prediabetes and diabetes. Insulin resistance is regarded as a major predictor of type-2 diabetes, with most patients going on to develop the condition within the next 10-20 years.
- High Cholesterol
In many cases, prolonged insulin resistance makes you more likely to develop high cholesterol levels. More specifically, it alters systemic lipid metabolism, resulting in higher than normal levels of plasma triglycerides, while levels of high-density lipoprotein (the good cholesterol) start to fall. The increase in blood cholesterol levels that is commonly observed with insulin resistance may be caused by increased synthesis of very-low-density lipoprotein in the liver.
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
Although the non-alcoholic fatty liver disease can have various causes, such as a high-fat diet and obesity, insulin resistance is regarded as an important contributor. The condition can increase fat accumulation in the liver by increasing the delivery of free fatty acid and through hyperinsulinemia – increased insulin production. In fact, insulin resistance is observed in almost all cases of fatty liver disease. In some cases, this can even lead to the development of steatohepatitis.
- You develop dark skin patches
Prolonged insulin resistance leads to an increase in insulin production over time and this can cause an accumulation of insulin within skin cells themselves. This manifests in visible skin changes, with darkened patches of skin towards the back of the neck, elbows, knees, groins, knuckles, and armpits. This skin condition is described as acanthosis nigricans. There is no known cure for the condition, but the management of insulin resistance can help to prevent it or reduce the severity of discoloration and darkening.
- Heart Attack & Stroke
When not managed in a timely manner, insulin resistance can significantly raise the risk of heart failure and strokes. Aside from the fact that reduced insulin sensitivity and increased blood sugar damages cells, including blood vessels, insulin resistance also adversely affects lipid levels. All of this encourages the buildup of arterial plaque, restricting or even obstructing blood flow. In time, this damages the heart itself. Not surprisingly, insulin resistance is associated with a 50% higher risk of heart failure and strokes.
- Cancerous Tumors
Cancer is not something that most of us associated with insulin resistance, but research suggests that there may be a connection. Prolonged insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome may increase the risk of various types of cancer, including breast, bladder, colon, pancreatic, and uterine cancers. It is believed that high insulin levels facilitate tumor growth and also impair the body’s natural defense against malignant cells.
- Early Onset Dementia
Although the connection between prolonged insulin resistance and dementia is not clearly understood, studies do suggest that insulin resistance raises the risk. One mechanism is vascular dementia, in which blood vessel damage from insulin resistance leads to reduced blood flow to the brain. Researchers are still investigating the role of insulin resistance in memory function decline and the increased risk of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
How to Cope with Insulin Resistance
In addition to the risks highlighted above, insulin resistance is also connected to a higher risk of kidney disease, high uric acid levels or gout, and PCOS. Fortunately, effective and early management of insulin resistance can counter these risks. Dietary and lifestyle changes to lose weight and get better sleep can help improve insulin sensitivity significantly. In fact, a study that appeared in the International Journal of Obesity, found that 10% of weight loss through diet and exercise could improve insulin sensitivity by 80%. Similarly, sleep deprivation has also been shown to raise insulin resistance. Findings like these highlight the importance of comprehensive lifestyle changes to tackle insulin resistance.