By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
Insulin resistance is something that I talk about multiple times every day in my work, and it has become even more prevalent in the past two years with high stress and a more sedentary lifestyle. It is extremely important to identify and address insulin resistance since it is on the trajectory towards diabetes, and on its own creates an inflammatory state in the body.
Insulin is the hormone that is released from the pancreas in response to glucose (sugar) in the blood. Insulin levels spike after eating a meal. When insulin is released in a non-insulin resistant (healthy) person, it triggers the body’s cells to utilize glucose and fats from the bloodstream. Insulin resistance occurs, when cells do not respond or respond weakly to the insulin signal. This results in the body secreting even more insulin and eventually creating toxic levels of glucose in the blood, known as high blood sugar.
Symptoms of insulin resistance:
The most common sign of insulin resistance starting is a rapid weight gain over a period of 2 years – usually 15-20 pounds. This weight gain is usually not easily explained with overeating, and is carried around the central abdomen.
Here is a full list of signs & symptoms of insulin resistance:
- weight gain (often rapid in a period of two to three years)
- very slow and difficult weight loss
- intense cravings for carbohydrates or sweets
- increased appetite
- feeling tired or bloated after eating
- carrying extra weight in the central abdomen
- increased anxiety & interrupted sleep
- in women it is also associated with acne and hair thinning
Causes of insulin resistance:
In most cases the causes of insulin resistance are quite straight-forward: eating too many high carbohydrate foods over a period of time, especially if there is a genetic predisposition to diabetes. Insulin resistance began for many people over the pandemic from a combination of eating more comfort foods, becoming less physically active working from home, higher stress levels, and/or more alcohol intake. It was a perfect storm.
There are several factors that can cause insulin resistance, and usually we need to have at least two or three of them over a period of time for insulin levels to rise:
- Overeating sugar and foods high in simple carbohydrates (pastries, bread, white rice, potatoes, candies, chocolates, etc).
- Family history of type 2 diabetes can allow insulin resistance to start at a younger age
- Having gestational diabetes in pregnancy increases the risk of insulin resistance (and later type 2 diabetes)
- Drinking more alcohol, especially if it is daily.
- Lack of sleep – sleeping less than 6 hours per night on a regular basis impacts how your body tolerates carbohydrates.
- Being more sedentary – less daily activity especially is associated with insulin resistance.
- Inflammatory diet – eating foods that are inflammatory to you can also predispose to insulin resistance.
- Chronic high stress – stress often impacts our food cravings and eating habits, and changes in cortisol can also impact insulin sensitivity leading to more insulin resistance.
- Perimenopause / menopause – women seem to be more prone to insulin resistance during this period of hormone transition, causing weight gain and carrying more abdominal fat.
- Mitochondria dysfunction – your mitochondria can be damaged by chronic high stress, many environmental toxins, and certain medications, and when they aren’t functioning well it impacts the ability of insulin to get into your cells, creating insulin resistance. Other symptoms of mitochondria dysfunction include fatigue, brain fog, exercise intolerance and/or muscle pain.
As you can see, there are many factors involved in creating insulin resistance – it’s not only about your sugar intake. Yes, overeating simple carbohydrate foods and sugar is the most common cause of insulin resistance, but it is actually a lot more complicated than this, especially when there is high stress or lack of sleep.
The good news is that insulin resistance is fully reversible – we can do this by addressing all of the lifestyle factors that created it (nutrition, sleep, stress, exercise), and also reducing inflammation and supporting mitochondria function. This is not a quick process however, as it usually took years to get to the point of an insulin resistance diagnosis.
If your body has changed over the past 2 years, you’ve gained weight around your middle and it’s not coming off easily it is likely that insulin resistance has started. Remember that this condition is fully reversible – we just need to address all of the factors that created it, not only your nutrition. It is important to also look at sleep, stress, alcohol, movement, inflammation, hormones and mitochondria to fully address and reverse insulin resistance.