Insulin Resistance Overview: What is it, how do you know you have it, and how can you reverse it?

Insulin. You probably don’t think too much about it unless it’s not performing as it should. It’s fair to say that this vital hormone released by the pancreas oversees quite a few important functions in the body (blood sugar regulation being job number one!). But what happens when insulin can’t do its job? Enter Insulin Resistance.

You might have heard of it in relation to diabetes or come across it when consulting “Dr Google” on health niggles like brain fog, fatigue, or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

Insulin Resistance can lead to a whole host of unpleasant symptoms and increase your risk of a number of health conditions.

But before we look more closely at the health implications of insulin resistance and how to reverse it, let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of what it actually is…  


What is insulin resistance?

Don’t let the term “insulin resistance” intimidate you. To understand it, let’s quickly get to grips with the very important work insulin does.

Insulin looks after many processes in the body. Perhaps the one it’s best known for is blood sugar regulation.

When you eat, your blood sugar levels rise. Insulin is released from your pancreas into your bloodstream and does a stellar job of picking up sugar (also known as glucose).

In layman’s terms, insulin resistance means your body’s cells do not respond properly to insulin – whether it’s insulin your body makes or the insulin you inject as a medication.

When this happens, your body can’t use glucose/sugar from your blood for energy, the sugar stays in your blood and your blood sugar levels increase.

Then, the body responds by producing extra insulin in a bid to bring your blood sugar levels back down to a ‘safe’ range – homeostasis. The result is higher insulin and fluctuating blood sugar levels.

Insulin diagram_ owned by Integral Wellness

But what causes insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance is fairly common. You might be surprised to learn that, among adults, the prevalence of insulin resistance ranges from 15.5–46.5% worldwide. Many have it and don’t know they do.

So, what causes it? Well, there are a whole host of possible causes.

First off, it’s more common among overweight and obese people, though it’s important to note, that anyone can develop it irrespective of weight[VS1]. Having a bigger body size doesn’t mean you’ll have it. Our bodies are rarely that simple! 

One possible culprit? Increased levels of free fatty acids in your blood[VS2], which are usually a result of overconsumption and excess body fat.

The problem could also lie in your gut. There’s evidence to suggest that disruption to your gut microbiota (also known as gut dysbiosis) can result in inflammation which can worsen insulin resistance.

(Gut dysbiosis is also considered to be driven by mitochondria dysfunction, FYI) 

Chronic inflammation, high intake of added sugars, and inactivity are also linked to an increased risk of insulin resistance because of the constant demand for insulin production, yet there is no demand for more glucose/sugar for the body. 

There is usually more than enough already available to use up. (Hence we may increase in body size as the excess has to go somewhere.) 

Now that we’ve cleared that up…


How do you know you have insulin resistance?

You might be reading this article because you already have a strong suspicion that you’re insulin-resistant. But how can you know for sure?

You’ll need a health professional to officially diagnose insulin resistance. They can do so using a HOMA-IR or an oral glucose test, for example. Fasting insulin is another test which measures the amount of insulin in your blood. As is C-peptide test. It measures levels of C-peptide in blood, which is produced by pancreas alongside insulin. 

Unfortunately, an official diagnosis isn’t very common, particularly here in the UK, at the moment. However, there’ll probably be a few telltale signs and symptoms that present when insulin resistance is at play, like…

  • Dark patches on the skin, likely in creases like the grin, neck, armpits (acanthosis nigricans)
  • Brain fog
  • Hunger and feeling better once you’ve eaten (but it won’t last for more than a couple of hours)
  • Frequent urination
  • Obesity (particularly on the abdomen)
  • Fatigue and waking up unrested
  • High blood triglycerides

All that said, these can be symptomatic of other health concerns and aren’t necessarily a clear indication of insulin resistance without blood tests.

Add to that, some of them overlap with symptoms of type 2 diabetes, which leads us neatly on to the next section…


What symptoms and conditions are linked to insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance is closely related to several other common health conditions: including metabolic syndrome, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, PCOS, thyroid issues, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. 

Let’s start with the former: Metabolic syndrome. Essentially, it’s a group of health conditions that puts you at an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems and its hallmarks as five health components including high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low levels of HDL, insulin resistance and excess weight, particularly around the middle. 

As for type 2 diabetes? Not everyone who is insulin-resistant has diabetes. However, the two are closely correlated because insulin resistance precedes pre-diabetes which precedes type 2 diabetes. How long is that journey? Depends on your diet and lifestyle.

FYI: Insulin resistance can also occur in gestational diabetes as well.

It’s worth noting there are four different types of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and PCOS driven by insulin resistance is just one of them. Knowing what the drive is and which kind of PCOS you have helps when it comes to putting food and lifestyle recommendations in play to improve your symptoms.


How do you reverse insulin resistance?

Here’s the thing, by preventing or reversing the development of insulin resistance you may be able to prevent metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and insulin-resistant PCOS.

And if you already have type 2 diabetes, reversing insulin resistance will give you better blood sugar control.

Now for the really good news: there are lots of steps you can take to reverse insulin resistance – and bonus point: they aren’t just an investment in your long-term health, they’ll likely make you feel much better in the short term as well.

1. Balance your blood sugars

What you choose to eat and how often you choose to eat impacts your blood sugar levels. 

Balancing your blood sugars is crucial for appetite control and stable energy levels, among other things. It’s also vital for weight management.  

Losing weight can be easier said than done, but given that excess weight is one of the biggest factors influencing insulin resistance, it could pay dividends.

In fact, research from 2017 shows that women aged 20-45 years who lost weight and maintained that weight loss had enhanced insulin sensitivity.

(Not sure where to begin? Don’t worry. The next few pointers should help.)

2. Make some adjustments to your diet

Healthy foods are very helpful when it comes to kicking insulin resistance to the curb. But what does healthy even mean? Food has become confusing!

When looking specifically at insulin resistance, cutting back on carbohydrates can be incredibly beneficial.

Why? Because carb-heavy foods breakdown to sugars and therefore lead to blood sugar spikes and the need for insulin. If you’re currently insulin resistant this just encourages more sugar into your blood and puts greater demand on your pancreas to produce enough insulin to force the sugar into your cells. 

It’s like having to turn the volume up full blast; the speaker will eventually get damaged. The more time sugar stays in the blood waiting for a response, the more damage it’s causing to your blood vessels, the less your cells are obtaining easy energy and the more symptoms you experience.

Remember what we said earlier about how added sugars can increase your risk of insulin resistance too? Well, it’s a good idea to limit your intake of these as well. (You’ll usually find them in ultra-processed foods and the snacks we tend to lean on but know we shouldn’t).

Another pro tip? Eat the rainbow. Pack your plate with colourful fruits and veggies. This isn’t just good for overall health, colourful fruits and veggies are rich in antioxidants and fibre.

Not only will this keep your gut microbiome well-fed and happy but studies show that antioxidants can reduce inflammation in the body, which you’ll remember (as we mentioned earlier) is a contributor to insulin resistance.

The more you know, eh? (A quick note though: the relationship between fruits and blood sugar is kinda complex, especially if you’re diabetic. We’ve written all about that here.)

3. Move more

According to research, working out for just 30 minutes three to five times a week can trigger an instant increase in insulin sensitivity. After eight weeks, this change can become permanent.

And another thing: when you have more muscle (which you can build through strength-training exercises) you have better blood sugar control. (This blog will give you a good primer on the link between insulin sensitivity and muscle mass.)

Don’t worry, you don’t have to bench press double your body weight or run a marathon if those goals are beyond your current fitness levels. Take it at your own pace and build from there. Something is better than nothing.


4. Manage stress

Stress is an unfortunate by-product of modern living, and it can have a knock-on effect on your body’s ability to regulate blood sugars.

Not only can it increase the amount of glycogen released from storage into your bloodstream, increasing blood sugar levels, but research suggests high levels of stress reduce insulin sensitivity too.

Stress is often unavoidable but you can make some headway by finding effective ways to manage it and become more resilient. A 2020 study found that yoga and mindfulness are two of the most effective techniques for managing stress. Give them a go if you can.

5. Sign up to The Blood Sugar Fix

Blood sugars, insulin, diabetes… understanding how your body works can be overwhelming. Making adjustments to optimise your health even more so.

The Blood Sugar Fix an online group course is here to support you in balancing your blood sugars so you can feel your best. 

You’ll learn how your current lifestyle is affecting your blood sugars, by using a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) with qualified guidance and receive step-by-step training on how to improve your blood sugar control, cravings, and energy.

With tailored advice and support from registered nutritionists, you’ll learn how to overcome insulin resistance and say hello to improved energy, a clearer head, and better overall health.

Sign up now to join the waiting list and be the first to get access to the launch price or if you can’t wait, book a one-to-one call and get support now.

Want to reverse insulin resistance, pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes?