Insulin Resistance: A Growing Epidemic
In the West, where the mega-meal and recliner are all too pervasive, insulin resistance is increasingly common.
Ever strip a screw when you’re in the midst of a do-it-yourself project? Suddenly, you need to use real elbow grease to turn it just a little bit. And the more it gets stripped, the harder it is to turn. Your body can be a little like that. The more foods you eat that spike your blood sugar, the more insulin your body has to pump out to handle the load. Over time, repeated surges of insulin can strip your cells’ insulin receptors, figuratively speaking, so they don’t work as well, and the insulin can’t be used as efficiently. When that happens, your body has to pump out more insulin to do the same job. This condition is called insulin resistance.
In the West, where the mega-meal and the electric recliner are all too pervasive, insulin resistance is increasingly common. About 25 percent of adults have it. And if you’re overweight and over 45, the chances that you have it are nearly one in two. You’re much more likely to develop insulin resistance if you’re overweight and sedentary.
If you have insulin resistance, your blood sugar levels may still be normal, although they may be on the high side after meals. You don’t have diabetes — yet. But you are going in a direction that’s putting a lot of stress on your blood sugar control system, and you’re doing some damage along the way.
The extra insulin your body has to churn out can raise blood pressure, cause cholesterol problems, and even make it easier for certain cancers to grow. It also paves the way for weight gain. And here’s a real scare: There’s growing evidence that the brain itself can become insulin resistant, which impairs the function of nerves and leads to the buildup of toxic deposits, increasing the risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
And of course, insulin resistance increases the risk of diabetes. High blood sugar and extra insulin can damage the beta cells in the pancreas — the ones that make insulin — so they become fatigued or die off. When that happens, you have diabetes.
Insulin resistance starts slowly, furtively, silently. It has no symptoms. But once you develop it, it’s easier to become even more insulin resistant. In a vicious cycle, the more insulin your body has to produce to keep blood sugar down, the more insulin resistant you become — unless you do something to reverse the trend. Fortunately, changing your eating style is one of the biggest keys to preventing or reversing the condition.
Eating foods that keep blood sugar levels stable is key to preventing or reversing insulin resistance. To further help your cause, take these steps.
Even if you don’t lose weight, exercising reduces insulin resistance. In one study, spending 30 minutes on a stationary bike three or four times a week cut insulin levels by 20 percent while lowering blood sugar levels by 13 percent — enough to take someone from “prediabetes” to “normal.”
Simply eating less, even before you lose any weight, can improve insulin sensitivity and reduce levels of circulating insulin (your body needs less insulin if it’s more sensitive to it). In one study of sedentary men and women, eating 25 percent fewer calories than they were used to over six months resulted in significantly lower fasting insulin levels. Other studies have found that cutting calories improves insulin sensitivity.
Get enough sleep
Missing out on a full night’s sleep increases insulin resistance, possibly by disturbing hormone balance. Doing so for years may increase the risk of developing diabetes. In a recent study of men, those who slept less than 6 hours a night were twice as likely to develop diabetes over the following 15 years compared to men who got about 7 hours a night. (Those who got more than 8 hours a night were also at higher risk.)