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Insulin Resistance: Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Jayne Yenko

Jayne has taught health/nutrition and education at the college level and has a master's degree in education.

Insulin resistance can develop into type 2 diabetes if left untreated. However, making lifestyle changes can drastically reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Learn more about insulin resistance, including risk factors, how to test for it, and how you can reverse it.

Definition

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, which tells the cells (muscle, fat, and liver) of the body to absorb excess glucose circulating in the blood. Glucose is the main source of energy for the human body. Insulin resistance is a condition in which insulin is produced, but the cells do not absorb excess glucose, resulting in high levels of glucose in the blood, and in more insulin being produced. This condition is also called metabolic syndrome or syndrome X. It can lead to type 2 diabetes and a higher risk of heart disease, unless lifestyle changes are made.

Comparison of how cells respond to insulin
Insulin resistance

Symptoms

There are no obvious symptoms of insulin resistance. A blood glucose test can show that it exists, but most often people have it without knowing for a long time. Your physician can identify if you are at risk by certain risk factors. These include:

  • Obesity - particularly excess belly fat
  • Physical inactivity
  • Ethnicity - those with African American, Native American, Hispanic and Asian American are more at risk (in conjunction with other risk factors)
  • Being age 45 or older
  • Steroid use
  • Sleep problems
  • Smoking

Treatment

Changes in lifestyle habits, especially diet and exercise, are the primary means of reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. There are also medications, like metformin and thiazolidinedione, that help make the cells more receptive to insulin. However, some research studies have shown that diet and exercise are almost twice as effective as the medications. Insulin resistance can be reversed by doing the following:

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