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What is Insulin Resistance?

It occurred to me, as I was writing my last blog post about how great grapefruit can be for insulin resistance, that you might not know what insulin resistance, or IR, is. Insulin resistance is a condition that goes hand in hand with metabolic syndrome, syndrome X, or pre-diabetes. It is essentially a big part of the state of blood sugar imbalance between “normal” and “diabetic.” If you are developing insulin resistance things are clearly going wrong, but not yet wrong enough to actually have a condition.

Signs and symptoms of metabolic syndrome and IR:

health for diabetics

  • Waist measurement greater than 40 inches in men and greater than 35 inches in women
  • Triglycerides (on your blood tests) 150 or greater, or below 150 but only because you’re already taking a medication to lower them.
  • HDL (good cholesterol) below 40 for men, below 50 for women, or already taking a medication to raise your HDL levels.
  • High blood pressure, which means 130/85 or greater, or you’re already taking a blood pressure medication.
  • Fasting blood sugars above 100 but not yet diagnosed with diabetes or already taking medications to control blood sugar
  • Difficulty losing weight
  • High insulin on a fasting blood test. This is actually the only true sign of insulin resistance, but the blood test is rarely done due to cost so we look for other signs and symptoms that are linked to metabolic syndrome and just assume that insulin resistance is part of it.
  • Skin discoloration called acanthosis nigrans which shows up as dark patches on the neck, elbows, knees, knuckles or armpits. This doesn’t show up in everyone and darker skin tends to show this more frequently.
  • Many people feel no different, but their blood labs will show some of the unhealthy changes above

What is really going on?

Picture insulin resistance as a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario. Your diet is high in sugars, starches and carbohydrates in general and so your blood sugar is always high. Even if it’s not “abnormally” high, it’s higher than your body is used to. Your body responds to that high blood sugar by producing insulin, which is supposed to help push that sugar into your cells. Unfortunately, because the blood sugar is always high, the insulin is also always high. In our bodies any signal that is there too much of the time starts to get ignored. It’s exactly the same as the noise the air conditioner makes in your home – generally you don’t notice it because it’s pretty much always there (at least it is in Texas). Because of this situation your body stops listening to the insulin signals, or in other words, becomes insulin resistant.

What is Insulin Resistance and What To Do About It?


Honestly, the big thing is to change your diet. There are helpful supplements as well, but the biggest changes you can make are with diet and exercise. Here are some great diet tips from Naturally Skinny School about regulating your blood sugars and healing your insulin resistance:

  • Eat small meals frequently
  • Make sure each small meal has some protein, a little fat, fiber and a relatively small amount of starch or sugar.
  • Never eat sweet, sugary or starchy foods by themselves (and don’t forget juice or soda count as “food” here)
  • If you do eat something sugary or starchy, make sure you eat protein, fiber or fat with it to help control your blood sugar and insulin while it is digesting
  • Don’t skip breakfast (for so many reasons!)
  • If you wake up hungry at night make sure that you are eating a high protein snack before bed. Blood sugar instability at night is one of the things that can cause wakefulness.

By making sure that your blood sugars are forced to be stable with your diet allows your insulin to start to readjust and for those levels to come down. Exercise is also incredibly helpful in correcting insulin resistance, simply because exercise helps your body to relearn how to be sensitive to insulin. This is because as your muscles are working, they need more blood sugar for fuel, but they can’t get the sugar out of your blood unless they start listening to the insulin signals. As your muscle cells start paying more attention to that signal your overall blood levels of insulin start to drop and so the rest of your body starts paying more attention too. It’s just like in a romantic relationship. If your partner calls 20 times a day there is really no reason to miss them, to think about them or to want more. If they suddenly stop calling, then you suddenly start missing…

If you’d like more information the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse is a great resource.

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