Insulin resistance can have a broad spectrum of implications on women’s health and quality of life. Although it doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, it typically leads to high glucose levels, can result in diabetes, and is also linked to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

In this article, we explain what insulin resistance is and what you can do to manage symptoms & reduce the risk of diabetes. 

What Is Insulin and What Does It Do?

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas and it plays a critical role in regulating the levels of sugar (glucose) in the bloodstream. It also facilitates the absorption of glucose into cells, where it is used for energy or stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles for later use. Insulin is also believed to be the primary regulator of carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism. 

Essentially, after consuming food, particularly foods containing sugars and carbohydrates, your digestive system breaks them down into glucose, which enters the bloodstream. In response to the rise in blood glucose levels, the pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream, which acts like a key that unlocks the doors of cells to allow glucose to enter and be used for energy production.

Understanding the important role of insulin in the body can help to comprehend what happens when the body becomes insulin resistant due to pre-diabetes, diabetes, or gestational diabetes. 

What Is Insulin Resistance?

Insulin resistance occurs when the cells in your muscles, fat, and liver are not responding appropriately to insulin. In essence, insulin is still being released by the pancreas, as it usually is when increased glucose levels are detected in the bloodstream after consuming certain food.

However, when the cells are unable to effectively absorb glucose from the bloodstream, the pancreas makes more insulin to encourage the absorption. 

Read: Insulin Resistance and PCOS

As a result of the insulin resistance from the cells, and the increased production of insulin by the pancreas, energy levels typically drop and metabolism slows. 

When insulin resistance is left untreated or goes unnoticed, glucose levels in the bloodstream continue to rise and ever-increasing amounts of insulin are required to break it down. This can lead to diabetes, and long-term complications like blindness, amputation, gum disease, heart disease, and kidney damage.  

Insulin Resistance: Common Symptoms 

Even though many women with insulin resistance experience no symptoms until it escalates into pre-diabetes or diabetes, common symptoms of insulin resistance include the following: 

  • Cravings for sweet and salty food   
  • Frequent thirst
  • Fatigue 
  • Larger appetite than usual
  • More frequent urges to urinate
  • Pins & Needles in the feet or hands
  • Skin darkening in the armpits, groin, or neck
  • Weight gain & difficulty losing it

Should you notice any of the above symptoms make an appointment with your healthcare professional to have your blood sugar levels checked. Insulin resistance that is caught early can prevent several more serious symptoms as well as diabetes. 

Insulin Resistance vs Diabetes

While insulin resistance is often a precursor to Type 2 diabetes, they are not the same condition. In the case of insulin resistance, your body still produces insulin but is ineffective at using it properly, leading to high levels of both insulin and glucose in your bloodstream.

When this resistance progresses to the point where your pancreatic cells can no longer produce enough insulin to maintain normal blood sugar levels, Type 2 diabetes can occur.

Prevalence of Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance is surprisingly common, affecting millions of people worldwide. While it is prevalent among those who are overweight or obese, it can also occur in people who are of normal weight but have unhealthy lifestyle habits or other risk factors.

The Body-Wide Impact of Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance does not merely affect your blood sugar levels. It can also contribute to a host of other health problems. These can range from weight gain and difficulty losing weight to more severe conditions like heart disease and even certain types of cancer. The body's inability to use insulin effectively can affect various metabolic pathways, contributing to inflammatory responses and other long-term health issues.

Identifying Symptoms and Root Causes

Recognizing the symptoms of insulin resistance can be a bit challenging, as they are often subtle and may not seem severe. Common signs include fatigue, hunger, difficulty concentrating, high blood pressure, and a waistline larger than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women.

If you exhibit these symptoms, it's crucial to consider the potential underlying causes, which can include poor diet, lack of physical activity, obesity, and genetic factors.

Procedures for Diagnosis and Testing

If you suspect you have insulin resistance, it's important to consult a healthcare provider for diagnosis. Diagnosis typically involves blood tests that check fasting glucose levels, fasting insulin levels, and sometimes a test called the Hemoglobin A1C, which provides an average of your blood sugar levels over the past three months. Based on the test results and other risk factors, your healthcare provider may also recommend additional tests.

Approaches to Management and Treatment

Management of insulin resistance often involves lifestyle changes as the first line of treatment. This includes adopting a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.

Physical activity is also critical, and even a moderate exercise regimen can help improve your body's sensitivity to insulin. In some cases, medications like Metformin may be prescribed to help control blood sugar levels.

Strategies for Prevention

Preventing insulin resistance is largely about maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise and a balanced diet low in processed sugars and high in fiber can go a long way in preventing this condition. Managing stress through mindfulness techniques or other methods can also improve insulin sensitivity.

Future Outlook and Prognosis

If left unmanaged, insulin resistance can lead to various health problems including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. However, the outlook is generally good for those who make lifestyle changes or take medications as prescribed. Early intervention is key to preventing the more severe consequences of this condition.

When to Consult a Healthcare Provider

If you exhibit symptoms of insulin resistance or have multiple risk factors, it's advisable to consult a healthcare provider for early intervention and a proper treatment plan.

Understanding and managing insulin resistance are critical for maintaining a healthy life and preventing future health complications. With appropriate lifestyle changes, medication, and ongoing care, most people can successfully manage this condition and live full, healthy lives.


Can Insulin Resistance be Reversed?

Fortunately, insulin resistance can often be reversed or at least significantly improved through lifestyle modifications. Weight loss, improved dietary habits, and regular exercise can enhance insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels.

What is the Role of Diet in Insulin Resistance?

Diet plays a significant role in managing insulin resistance especially with PCOS. Foods that are low on the glycemic index, rich in fiber, and low in saturated fats can improve insulin sensitivity.

What are Common Risk Factors and Complications?

Obesity, especially abdominal obesity, is a major risk factor for developing insulin resistance. Other risk factors include age, a family history of diabetes, and certain ethnic backgrounds. Complications of untreated insulin resistance can include Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and a higher risk for stroke.


Cleveland Clinic – Insulin Resistance -

National Library of Medicine - Biochemistry, Insulin Metabolic Effects -

Health Central - How Insulin Resistance and PCOS Are Linked -

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention - PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) and Diabetes -

National Library of Medicine - Genetic Basis of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): Current Perspectives -

National Center for Biotechnology Information - Effects of Inositol(s) in Women with PCOS:  A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials -

Journal of Ovarian Research - Insulin resistance in polycystic ovary syndrome across various tissues: an updated review of pathogenesis, evaluation, and treatment -

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