7 Risks of Prolonged Insulin Resistance

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Insulin Resistance

Breaking the insulin resistance cycle involves a number of things, including reducing simple carbohydrate-rich foods, like grains, juices, processed foods, etc, in our diet. Below are 5 guidelines that will help slash insulin resistance and improve blood sugar control overall. This is useful advice with people who have diabetes, PCOS, metabolic syndrome and for those who just need assistance to lose weight. 

  • No naked carbs. What? Since carb-rich foods (legumes, fruit, starchy vegetables, grains, and sugar) give us quick energy and have the greatest effect on raising blood sugar levels, it is ideal to have a source of protein or fat with this food to buffer the absorption of sugar going into the bloodstream. For example, an apple (carb) with peanut butter is far more favorable than eating an apple alone.
  • Reduce snacking and eliminate grazing. Be sure to eat enough at each meal (review plate visual) by cueing into your satiety and hunger levels, so you do not need to eat more than three-four times a day. When we have smaller, more frequent meals, we cause our body to produce more insulin, creating higher circulating levels of insulin. High insulin levels cause insulin resistance. Transition to 3 meals and an optional snack each day.
  • Hydrate. Drink 20 ounces of water first thing in morning. I play a game by making myself drink my water before I am allowed to enjoy my coffee. Do what motivates you. Overall, aim to drink half of your weight in ounces every day. For example, if I weigh 200 pounds, I need 100 ounces of water or herbal tea per day. Drinking water is one of the simplest ways to improve your hormone (including insulin) functionality, hunger, and fat-loss.
  • Forecast meals. No need to make a formal meal plan, but spend five minutes a week reviewing which meals you will be eating out or at home. Sketch out at least 3 meals (doubling some of the recipes can save you time) and reflect these meals onto a grocery list. This can help you get in front of your health by making healthy food the obvious choice. It can also help reduce food waste. Win-win.
  • Eat with the sun. Eating during daylight hours supports our natural body clock, and therefore our hormone functioning. The more in sync we are with our circadian rhythm by eating with the sun, we support hormone balance, improving insulin resistance. Doing this also improves sleep and high-quality sleep is the “secret sauce” for health. Additional motives to eat earlier? Data suggests when we eat past 7 PM we increase our insulin secretion by 50 to 70%. High insulin leads to insulin resistance. If you find yourself eating late, make it a smaller, lighter meal.

Steps to Better Sleep

Sleep is a crucial element to health. It is the basis of our well-being and if we cut ourselves short, not only will our afternoons seem harder, but our waistlines and blood sugars can pay for it.

Suggested steps for better sleep:

  1. Black out your room. Completely. No clocks, no blinking laptops, no light. If your iPhone is your alarm, set your alarm in advance and change your setting to “Do Not Disturb,” and plug in your phone, face down.
  2. Do not check email, Facebook, social media for at least one-two hours before bed. Believe it or not, that email, notification and feed will still be there tomorrow. You need to actively take steps for better sleep. Make it a habit to put technology aside in the evening and if this is not possible, dim to brightness on your computer and phone.
  3. Don’t eat for at least 2 hours before bed. If your body is trying to digest food, you may not be able to fall asleep as soundly. This is especially true if you are eating something that doesn’t agree with you i.e. gluten, dairy, sometimes garlic and onions bother people too.
  4. On the contrary, eating carbohydrates later in the day can help you fall asleep. Carbohydrates boost tryptophan, which is a precursor to the feel good hormone serotonin. As well, the practice of consuming carbohydrates in the latter part of the day help with insulin sensitivity, thus improve sound sleep.
  5. Clean your room. Not in a mom-like suggestion but clear the clutter. A messy, cluttered space can clutter your mind and distract you from falling asleep faster.
  6. Assess your caffeine intake. If you are reliant on caffeine to keep you going – cut back. The first week of cutting back on caffeine will be hard, but then it will become manageable.
  7. Get in bed earlier and aim for 8-9 hours of sleep. Sleep can be the secret weapon for better digestion and weight loss. When we trim our sleep we become insulin resistant, we crave sugar and our hunger hormone (leptin) is deregulated. Guess what? Bedtimes are not just for kids. You now have a bedtime.
  8. Take magnesium before bed, or natural calm magnesium (this is a brand). I highly recommend and provide Standard Process supplements to clients – if interested you are welcome to email me with inquiries.
  9. Have a notebook next to your bed – if your mind is running about a project, a to-do, an upcoming event, make note of it and shut your mind off.
  10. Take 3 deep breaths, let your stress of the day go, say in your head or out loud something you are thankful for, close your eyes and fall sleep.

As for carbohydrate choices, I do not give all foods my blessing. I think there are better choices than others including:

  • Vegetables: Starchy tubers (sweet potatoes, japanese sweet potatoes, yams, tarot, jerusalem artichoke, cassava, and bamboo) and winter squash such as pumpkin and butternut squash.
  • Fruit (berries, cherries and bananas)

References:

De Castro JM. Macronutrient relationships with meal patterns and mood in the spontaneous feeding behavior of humans. Physiol Behav. 1987;39(5):561-9.

Brinkworth GD, Buckley JD, Noakes M, Clifton PM, Wilson CJ. Long-term effects of a very low-carbohydrate diet and a low-fat diet on mood and cognitive function. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Nov 9;169(20):1873-80.