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January 5, 2023
Insulin Resistance: The Causes, Risk Factors, & How to Reverse It Naturally
Long before you develop type 2 diabetes, your body starts to change in ways that you can’t even see.
These invisible transformations are like alarm bells, setting off the alert that dangerous changes to your health are right around the corner—except you can’t hear them.
One of the most important silent alarm bells is insulin resistance. It’s a common precursor to type 2 diabetes, but if you catch it in time, you just might be able to stop it in its tracks.
What Is Insulin?
Insulin is a powerful hormone that helps regulate blood sugar (also called glucose) in your body (1). Insulin’s role is complex—here are the basics for a healthy individual:
- When you eat food with carbs, it increases the amount of sugar in your bloodstream.
- Your pancreas then releases insulin into your bloodstream.
- Insulin retrieves the blood sugar and puts it where it needs to go—either into your cells for energy, or into the liver to be stored until a time when your body needs more energy (2, 3).
- When your blood sugar goes into your cells to be used as energy, your body’s blood sugar levels and insulin levels both decrease. This signals to your liver when it’s time to release more stored blood sugar to replenish your body’s energy and blood sugar levels.
- Insulin helps manage the delicate balance of having just the right amount of blood sugar in your system.
If you develop insulin resistance, the process no longer works properly. Here’s what happens instead:
- When you have insulin resistance, your cells stop responding correctly to the insulin’s cues.
- Your pancreas will then produce excessive insulin hoping to lower your blood sugar levels. The result is hyperinsulinemia, or high insulin levels in the blood, along with high blood sugar (4).
- Blood sugar keeps rising, and the pancreas cannot create enough insulin fast enough to keep up.
- If this continues, the bloodstream accumulates too much blood sugar, which comes with many health risks. The liver may run out of space to store all that excess blood sugar, and when it becomes too full, it sends that blood sugar to be stored as body fat (5).
- This process of insulin resistance may ultimately damage your pancreas and can put you at risk for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes (6, 7).
Most of this goes unnoticed, as that silent alarm continues to blare unheard.
How to Know If You Have Insulin Resistance
Doctors can conduct several tests to find out whether you have insulin resistance. They can test your fasting insulin level, or they can conduct a test called HOMA-IR, which gauges your blood sugar and insulin levels to estimate whether you’re resistant (8).
One longer way to find out is through an oral glucose tolerance test, which takes a few hours, but will deliver a more direct result. Checking your cholesterol and triglycerides are good ways to determine whether you’re insulin resistant as well (9).
If you’re concerned about whether you have insulin resistance, you should be on the lookout for symptoms of diabetes. These include:
- Dark spots on the skin (these could be caused by acanthosis nigricans, a skin condition that indicates insulin resistance) (10)
- Feeling hungry—even right after eating
- Extreme hunger
- Extreme thirst
- Frequent need to urinate
- Feeling more tired than you used to
- A tingly feeling in your hands or feet
- Higher susceptibility to infections
Cause of Insulin Resistance
While there can be many potential causes of insulin resistance, the most common two are excess eating (beyond when you are hungry or what you need for fuel) and an increase in body fat (11, 12). Not everyone with insulin resistance is overweight, though it is most common among people who are (13).
Eating excessive calories or gaining too much body fat can lead to increased fatty acids in the blood, which sometimes causes the body to become insulin-resistant (14). Fatty acids are most likely to be released from belly fat, which can accumulate around your essential organs (15, 16).
Other potential causes of insulin resistance include chronic inflammation, consuming excessive fructose (the kind from added sugars, not fruit), lack of physical exercise, and gut health issues (17, 18, 19, 20, 21).
Risk Factors of Insulin Resistance
Potential risk factors of insulin resistance include:
- Being overweight, especially in the belly—though not everyone who develops insulin resistance is overweight (22)
- Family history of type 2 diabetes
- Not getting enough exercise
- Being 45 or older
- High blood pressure or cholesterol
- History of gestational diabetes (diabetes in pregnancy)
- History of heart health issues
- Metabolic syndrome
Can Insulin Resistance Cause Diabetes?
Insulin resistance can lead to prediabetes, and ultimately type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance has also been heavily linked to heart disease (23, 24). It is additionally suspected of being linked to several other serious health conditions (25, 26, 27, 28). However, it doesn’t need to get to this point—there are steps you can take to treat and stop insulin resistance before it leads to potential health issues…
Is Insulin Resistance Reversible?
Since your body gets blood sugar from carbs, reducing the number of carbs you eat reduces the amount of blood sugar you’re taking in. In fact, if you’re really into this idea, you can take your low-carb diet to the next level and try the keto diet.
On the keto diet, you reduce your carb intake to the extent that your body must switch over from using blood sugar as energy to using fat as energy (31). When this happens, it means your body is in ketosis. Studies have found that ketosis can fully reverse insulin resistance (32, 33, 34). It can also help you lose weight and feel more full (35)!
Other ways to reduce or reverse insulin resistance include getting regular exercise, reducing how much sugar you eat, quitting smoking, eating whole foods, taking omega-3s, getting better sleep, and managing your stress (36, 37, 38, 39, 40). Along with reducing insulin resistance, habits like these can lead to an overall happier, healthier, and calmer lifestyle.
- Your body gets blood sugar from carbs, and relies on insulin to help manage those blood sugar levels.
- When this natural process isn’t working properly, you develop insulin resistance—a condition where your blood sugar and insulin spike and the liver releases blood sugar into fat cells, causing weight gain.
- Insulin resistance can lead to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes if not treated, so it’s important to look out for diabetes symptoms.
- You can reverse insulin resistance with lifestyle changes like low-carb diets, exercising more, losing belly fat, getting better sleep, quitting smoking, eating healthier, and more.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to reverse insulin resistance?
Insulin resistance can be reversed fairly quickly. Some research on reversing insulin resistance follows participants for a year or more, but many are able to kickstart the process within days, and can see some results within a few weeks (41).
As a writer, editor, and wellness seeker, Claire has written for Self, Health, Prevention, CNN, Mic, Livestrong, and Greatist, just to name a few. When she's not writing, she specializes in traveling, getting lost in health-related research rabbit holes, and finding new ways to spoil her cat.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.