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Insulin Resistance 101: What Is It and Can It Be Reversed?

Insulin resistance, also known as impaired glucose tolerance, is a condition in which a person’s body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin. This condition is very common, affecting over 32 percent of people in the U.S.

What is insulin?

To understand insulin resistance, it’s important to first understand what insulin is. Blood sugar, also known as glucose, is the body’s main source of fuel. Blood sugar needs an “invitation” to enter the cells—and that invitation is insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas that is essential for regulating the amount of glucose that circulates in the bloodstream.

“Insulin is the key that unlocks the door to let blood sugar enter the cells,” said Dr. John Fulginiti, a surgeon who specializes in wound care and integrative medicine. “It helps the body maintain a good balance of energy, never allowing the level of blood glucose to spike for too long.”

What is insulin resistance?

In people with insulin resistance, cells in muscles, body fat, and the liver start resisting, or ignoring, insulin’s signal to absorb glucose from the bloodstream and transport it into cells. When this happens, glucose essentially gets stuck in the bloodstream, as it’s unable to enter the cells. This causes blood sugar levels to rise.

According to Dr. Fulginiti, insulin resistance is the driving factor that leads to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. “When the body becomes resistant to insulin, the pancreas tries to cope by releasing more and more insulin to keep blood sugar levels down. Over time, the pancreas’ ability to release insulin decreases, which elevates blood sugar levels even more and leads to the development of type 2 diabetes.”

This is unfortunately a very common occurrence. Around one in three people in the U.S. have prediabetes and one in ten have diabetes.

What causes insulin resistance?

While genetics, aging, and ethnicity certainly play a role in developing insulin resistance, Dr. Fulginiti says that the main factor in the development of insulin resistance is lifestyle, particularly diet.

“When a person’s diet is full of empty calories from processed foods, an abundance of quickly absorbed sugars, and refined carbohydrates like white bread and pasta, the body slowly becomes resistant to the effects of insulin. Over months and years, the body continues to need more insulin to successfully keep blood sugar balanced,” he said.

Having high insulin levels is a warning sign that typically precedes type 2 diabetes by decades. Physical signs that a person might be developing or have developed insulin resistance include central abdominal weight gain, fatigue after meals, sugar cravings, high triglycerides, low HDL, high blood pressure, problems with blood clotting, and increased inflammation. Insulin resistance can be diagnosed by a doctor through blood tests and symptomology.

How to prevent insulin resistance

The good news is, insulin resistance, prediabetes, and type 2 diabetes are largely preventable and reversible through lifestyle changes.

Dr. Fulginiti recommends removing dietary sugar, artificial sweeteners, processed foods, and refined vegetable oils from the diet, as these foods promote inflammation and increase insulin levels. Instead, he suggests eating whole, fiber-rich foods including vegetables, fruits, legumes, non-gluten grains, nuts, seeds, and high-quality animal protein.

In addition to the diet changes mentioned above, other factors that play a role in preventing and reversing insulin resistance include:

  • ·Getting enough sleep. A study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found in healthy subjects, even a partial night of poor sleep contributed to insulin resistance.

  • Controlling stress levels. Chronic stress elevates cortisol, the stress hormone, which, consequently, elevates blood sugar levels.

  • Exercising. A study published in the Journal of Obesity found that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) helped decrease fasting insulin and reduced insulin resistance.

  • Addressing nutrient deficiencies. According to Dr.Fulginiti, deficiencies in certain nutrients, such as vitamin D, chromium, magnesium, and alpha-lipoic acid, can contribute to insulin resistance.

The bottom line

While certain risk factors like race, age, and family medical history can’t be avoided, there are many lifestyle changes people can make to prevent and reverse insulin resistance. Seeking the help of

an integrative medical professional is recommended, as they can expertly guide and support their patients in applying holistic strategies to control blood sugar, normalize insulin levels, and achieve optimal wellness.

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