What is insulin resistance?

Millions of people suffer from chronic health problems – ranging from heart disease and diabetes to persistent tiredness, pain, depression and anxiety.

While numerous factors can play a role in why we develop such conditions, nurse and author Hanna Purdy says lifestyle – specifically what we eat – is a key part of the picture.

A specialist in public health nursing, Ms Purdy has written several books about the effects of our diets. “Almost always, with any chronic condition, there is something in our lifestyle causing it,” she says. “When digging deeper, it is obvious that one of the most important, if not the main cause, is the food we eat.”

She believes the crux of this is processed food, sugar and excess carbohydrates. “It seems sugar and processed food, and the hormonal imbalance and inflammation they cause in our body, are the main reasons why so many of us are unwell,” says Ms Purdy.

Most people associate this with diabetes, but that’s not necessarily the case, people with severe insulin resistance are those whose bodies respond least well to insulin. Although many people with severe insulin resistance will go on to develop diabetes, severe insulin resistance is not the same as diabetes. However, having insulin levels that are too high may still be associated with a range of health problems.

Here, Ms Purdy outlines the symptoms of insulin resistance, and how it can be avoided.

What is insulin resistance?
Insulin is an essential hormone, which plays many roles in the metabolism, explains Ms Purdy, enabling the transfer of glucose from the blood into cells for energy production, and keeping blood glucose levels stable. “In insulin resistance, the cells aren’t responding to the effects of insulin as they should,” she says, explaining that the main cause of this is the over-consumption of sugary and starchy foods, as well as eating too frequently.

“We have insulin in our body all the time, which leads to cells developing resistance to the effects. A consequence is that the pancreas produces an abnormally large amount of insulin to try to overcome the resistance of the cells, as an attempt to keep blood-sugar levels stable.” This leads to ‘hyperinsulinemia’ – a state of continuously high levels of insulin, also known as ‘metabolic syndrome’.

What health problems can be caused by insulin resistance?
Too much insulin has many ill-effects, says Ms Purdy, ranging from weight gain to chronic inflammation and pain. “We put on weight because insulin stores the excess glucose we eat as fat,” she explains. “Because of this, if there’s too much insulin, the task of losing weight is almost impossible, as the opposite hormone – glucagon – no longer has any effect, therefore fat-burning isn’t possible.

“Insulin resistance is known to cause chronic inflammation, which affects all tissues around the body and can lead to many chronic symptoms and illnesses, from chronic aches and pains, dental problems and osteoporosis, to type 2 diabetes and heart disease,” she adds.

“Polycystic ovary syndrome [PCOS] is a well-known complication of insulin resistance, but many other hormonal problems are also linked to it, such as thyroid problems and early puberty. Insulin resistance can also be a big problem during menopause, when hormones are in turmoil already.”

Later in life, insulin resistance has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, adds Ms Purdy. “The brain is affected by this condition just like any other organ. Alzheimer’s disease has been referred to as ‘type 3 diabetes’ – diabetes of the brain. In addition, we also know many other neurological problems have been associated with insulin resistance.”

It isn’t just a concern for older people, either – babies can have insulin resistance before they’re even born. “During pregnancy, too much glucose in the mother’s body can cause the pancreas of the foetus to release increasing amounts of insulin,” explains Ms Purdy, “meaning thse babies suffer from hyperinsulinemia before they’re even born, causing changes in their gene expression, inflammation and increasing size of the baby and the placenta. This increases the risk of metabolic symptoms later in life.”

What are the symptoms of insulin resistance?
Ms Purdy says the most common symptom is excess weight and/or excess fat around the middle. Low blood-sugar levels, which cause crashing between meals, is also a common sign, as well as tiredness and low energy levels, irritability, mood swings, food cravings, low immunity and frequent infections, snoring, many skin problems, inflammatory conditions, raised blood pressure and water retention.

“Insulin resistance is such a common condition and causes so many problems around the body, that if we suffer from any symptoms, it’s very likely to be at least one of the major root causes,” says Ms Purdy. “For this reason, it would be extremely important to reverse insulin resistance to get better with any condition.”

What’s the best way to tackle insulin resistance?
Ms Purdy says the key actions to reverse insulin resistance are to reduce sugar and carbohydrate intake (always check with your doctor or dietitian before making any major diet changes, especially if you already have chronic health issues). She also says to avoid grains such as bread, pasta and cereals, which break down to sugar, and processed food. Plus, don’t eat too often (maximum three times a day), as this often disturbs the balance between insulin and glucagon, she adds.

In terms of what you do want to do, she says eat good quality food, including organic vegetables, herbs and berries; maintain a healthy gut through consuming probiotic-rich fermented foods, plus fruit and vegetables containing prebiotics, such as berries, apples, cabbage, broccoli, onions and garlic, and omega-3 found in food like oily fish.

Regular exercise promotes muscle gain, which aids metabolism, and while any exercise is beneficial, studies show high intensity interval training (HIIT) in particular is very good for improving insulin sensitivity in cells.

Alongside diet, Ms Purdy says it’s also important to manage stress efficiently, get good sleep, stop smoking/vaping, and avoid alcohol.

“These measures will reduce the amount of insulin in the body, which results in the reduction of symptoms very quickly, and we burn excess fat, including around the liver,” says Ms Purdy. “all these measures also reduce chronic inflammation in the body very effectively and boost the immune system.”

Is diet the only cause of insulin resistance?
While Ms Purdy stresses that the most important measures to prevent or reduce insulin resistance are dietary, she says there are other causes of insulin resistance as well. “One of the important ones is chronic stress,” she says. “High levels of stress hormones affect the overall hormonal balance, including insulin, so constant stress can actually sabotage our efforts to reverse insulin resistance, even if our diet is reasonably healthy.”

Were you aware that insulin resistance could be the cause of so many health problems? Do you follow a specific diet or check your blood glucose?

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

YourLifeChoices Writers
YourLifeChoices Writershttp://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/
YourLifeChoices' team of writers specialise in content that helps Australian over-50s make better decisions about wealth, health, travel and life. It's all in the name. For 22 years, we've been helping older Australians live their best lives.
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