What is Insulin Resistance? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment

Posted July 24, 2020 by Clint Kelly - See Editorial Guidelines

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that is responsible for lowering blood sugar levels. However, your cells have to respond to insulin in order for your body to use glucose for energy. When cells do not respond well to insulin, it is known as insulin resistance.

With about a third of the U.S population having prediabetes, many may wonder what insulin resistance is. So, in this article, we will cover what this condition is, the symptoms, causes, and treatment options. But first, here is a quick answer to get you started.

What is Insulin Resistance? Insulin resistance is a condition in which the cells do not respond appropriately to insulin. When cells don’t respond to insulin, glucose begins to buildup in the bloodstream. The result is hyperglycemia, which can be detrimental to one’s health. It is a significant factor contributing to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.

Now that you have a basic understanding, lets get into the details.

What Is Insulin Resistance?

What is Insulin Resistance

After consuming food that contains carbohydrates, your body will convert the carbohydrates into glucose. This process occurs in the digestive system. Glucose then enters the bloodstream.

Normally, the pancreas will sense the glucose entering the bloodstream and begin releasing insulin. Insulin will then act as a lock and key mechanism for the body’s cells. So, insulin tells the cells to open up and allow glucose to enter. This process regulates a person’s blood glucose.  

However, when a person has insulin resistance, the cells become less responsive to insulin. Therefore, the cells do not open up to allow glucose to enter.

Glucose remains in the bloodstream, resulting in elevated blood sugar levels. To combat this, the pancreas will produce more insulin, but the cells will remain resistant to insulin. So, blood sugar levels will continue to rise if the condition is not treated.

Being insulin resistant also means that cells will not be able to use glucose for energy. Therefore, a person with insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels may feel sluggish due to cells not having the proper energy supply.

How Insulin Resistance Develops/Risk Factors

It’s one thing to understand what insulin resistance is, but how does it develop, and who is at risk?

There are a few factors in a person’s life that can cause insulin resistance, which include excess body fat, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, and not getting enough sleep. Let’s get into how each of these can cause insulin resistance to develop.

Excess Body Weight

Individuals that are overweight or obese are more likely to have visceral adipose tissue. Visceral adipose tissue, or fat located deep in the abdomen and around organs, has been shown to have an effect on the responsiveness of cells to insulin. This fat causes inflammation and cytokine production, which impairs the cell’s ability to recognize insulin. Therefore, excess body weight leads to insulin resistance.

Sedentary Lifestyle

A sedentary lifestyle, or a lack of exercise, is more prominent among those that are overweight. This would then go back to the point about visceral adipose tissue impairing the cell’s responsiveness.

Regular exercise has also been proven to improve one’s insulin sensitivity. When you exercise, your body is using glucose from the bloodstream as an energy source by absorbing it through the skeletal muscle tissue. Studies have also shown that physical inactivity leads to insulin resistance and vascular dysfunction.


Smoking can be detrimental to a person’s health. Smoking cigarettes causes inflammation inside the body and impairs the proper function of cells. Therefore, a person that smokes is at a higher risk of having insulin resistance, as the cell’s ability to respond to insulin is negatively affected.

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep is often overlooked as being a crucial part of one’s health. A lack of sleep, or sleep deprivation, can cause your body’s cortisol levels to rise. Cortisol is a hormone that can cause one’s cells to become resistant to insulin. Sleep deprivation can also affect other hormones in the body, such as testosterone and TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone). The changes in these hormones can farther decrease one’s insulin sensitivity.

Family History

Your family history is not something you can control, but it does put you at an increased risk of insulin resistance if your family members have diabetes. Studies have shown that a child is more likely to have lower insulin sensitivity if they have a family history of type 2 diabetes.

Certain Health Conditions

Certain health conditions also put a person at risk of insulin resistance. Two examples of these health conditions include nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Certain hormone conditions, such as Cushing’s syndrome, can also increase a person’s risk.


Age is a risk factor because those over the age of 45 are more likely to have insulin resistance.


Certain medications can cause insulin resistance to develop in some cases. These medications may include certain steroids, antipsychotics, or HIV medications.

How Insulin Resistance Becomes Type 2 Diabetes

What is Insulin Resistance

Before having full-blown type 2 diabetes, a person will have prediabetes. However, many of those that have prediabetes do not know that they have it.

When a person has prediabetes, their pancreas starts working harder because they are in the early stages of insulin resistance. The pancreas can overcome the resistance by working harder and producing more insulin.

Eventually, the pancreas’ ability to continue to produce enough insulin is decreased. So, a person’s blood glucose will gradually increase as insulin resistance becomes worse. Thus, insulin resistance becomes type 2 diabetes.

A blood glucose level between 100-125 mg/dL is considered prediabetes. A fasting blood sugar exceeding 126 mg/dL is considered diabetes.  

Symptoms Of Insulin Resistance

Signs and symptoms of insulin resistance will be similar, if not the same, as diabetes. These include:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Dehydration
  • Blurred vision
  • Feeling hungry
  • Feeling more tired than normal
  • Frequent infections
  • Slow-healing wounds
  • Tingling sensation in hands or feet

Signs and symptoms may be very subtle or undetectable during the early stages. If you are unsure, then your doctor can order blood work to be done to determine your insulin and glucose levels.

Treating Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance can be treated naturally without medical intervention. However, it is important to detect the early signs of insulin resistance and make strict lifestyle changes.

The two main lifestyle changes you can make to treat insulin resistance include dieting and exercising. Maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly will help you lose weight and prevent many health conditions. Losing weight may even potentially reverse insulin resistance completely.

By making alterations to your diet, you can decrease your need for insulin. Specific alterations include avoiding high glycemic index foods, such as white bread, unrefined sugars, and pastries.

Individuals that smoke or drink alcohol regularly should start taking steps to quit both to help cells heal and start responding more to insulin.

There are prescription medications that one can take to treat insulin resistance. A commonly prescribed drug is metformin.


Insulin resistance can lead to severe complications down the road if it is not treated. So, we hope this has given you greater insight into what insulin resistance is and the next steps you can take.

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