Diseases, Nutrition
Insulin resistance

Blood sugar imbalance is a commonly undiagnosed problem. Stable blood sugar is essential to overall health. Blood sugar imbalance can relate to (chronically) low or high blood sugar. Some people experience both, fluctuating blood sugar levels between low and high. Drops in blood sugar are known as hypoglycemia and high blood sugar spikes can refer to insulin resistance.

The early recognition of these symptoms will help you prevent excessive and unnecessary inflammation, and will give you the opportunity to take effective measures to reclaim your health. Glucose serves as your brain’s fuel and fuel for the cells throughout the body. When you do not have stable blood sugar (glucose), you comprise your overall health and your brain health.

Fast reading:

  1. Why insulin resistance is problematic?
  2. What is insulin resistance?
  3. Insulin resistance symptoms
  4. How can insulin resistance be diagnosed?
  5. Insulin resistance - eating to balance your blood sugar might fix the problem
  6. Find your carbohydrate tolerance

Why insulin resistance is problematic?

Many people are unaware that they have blood sugar imbalance and insulin resistance is a silent blood sugar problem. It is widely undiagnosed and if not managed it increases the risk for prediabetes, type 2 diabetes and a host of other serious health problems, including heart attacks, strokes, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), hypertension, and hyperlipidemia known as metabolic syndrome, and cancer.

Why insulin resistance is problematic?

What is insulin resistance?

Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas and its job is to help glucose in your blood (blood sugar) to enter the cells in your body, where it’s used for energy. Glucose comes from the food and drinks you consume. When blood glucose levels rise after you eat, your pancreas releases insulin into the blood. Insulin then helps to lower blood sugar (glucose enters the cells) to keep it in the normal range.

Insulin resistance is a condition when cells of the body don’t respond properly to insulin and they can’t easily take up glucose from the blood. As a result, it is more likely that glucose will build up in the blood leading to elevated blood sugar levels.

A growing body of evidence has consistently shown that insulin resistance is linked to low-grade systemic inflammation.

When the body becomes resistant to insulin, it tries to cope by producing more insulin (hyperinsulinemia), therefore people with insulin resistance are often producing more insulin than healthy people.

What is insulin resistance?

Insulin surges promote inflammation in the brain and in the body. Interestingly, blood sugar/insulin levels impact the brain’s ability to make neurotransmitters and are elucidated to play a role in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. Thus, unstable blood sugar affects brain’s biochemistry, causes inflammation and compromises your brain health.

Becoming insulin resistant does not happen over-night, it typically takes years to get there. Most common reason includes a diet high in sugars, sugary foods, sweets, cookies, sodas, bread, pasta, pastries, excess rice & potatoes, and grains. In addition, high stress, poor sleep and lack of physical activity. Being obese on itself increases insulin resistance as well. However, it is possible to be insulin resistant without being overweight or obese.

Insulin resistance symptoms

Insulin resistance develops in stages. During the initial - compensated phase of insulin resistance, insulin levels are higher, and normal blood glucose levels are still maintained. If compensatory insulin secretion fails, then either fasting or postprandial glucose concentrations increase. Eventually, type 2 diabetes develops when glucose levels become higher and the resistance increases and compensatory insulin secretion fails. The inability of the pancreatic β-cells to produce sufficient insulin in a condition of hyperglycemia is what characterizes the transition from insulin resistance to type 2 diabetes.

The symptoms become more pronounced once secondary effects such as higher blood sugar levels occur.

Insulin resistance symptoms may include:

  • thirst or hunger
  • feeling hungry even after a meal
  • increased or frequent urination
  • tingling sensations in hands or feet especially when insulin resistance progresses to type 2 diabetes
  • feeling more tired than usual
  • feeling sleepy after meals
  • frequent infections
  • difficulty concentrating (brain fog)
  • weight gain around the middle (belly fat)
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol levels
  • Some people may have darkened skin in the armpit or on the back and sides of the neck, a condition called acanthosis nigricans
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) might be a red flag to consider insulin resistance
Insulin resistance  symptoms - hunger

How can insulin resistance be diagnosed?

There is no single perfect test used in clinic for diagnosis. But the easiest screening way, next to the clinical presentation, is to do a blood test for (fasting) blood serum glucose and insulin (and often other markers like Ab1c, cholesterol, triglycerides).

There are also helpful tools for insulin resistance assessment such as the Quantitative Insulin Sensitivity Check Index or a Homeostatic Model Assessment of Insulin Resistance (HOMA-IR).

Insulin resistance - eating to balance your blood sugar might fix the problem

If you suspect you may have insulin resistance or prediabetes, there are things you can do to reduce inflammation and to be healthier.

Golden tips include avoiding sugary foods and drinks, avoiding processed foods and drinks, and having balanced meals consisting of real foods. Plant foods (veggies, fruits) rich in phytonutrients such as polyphenols-flavonoids with their anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative powers should be plenty full on your plate. Keeping a moderate carbohydrate intake is also recommended. Think of a Mediterranean like diet. Some people also benefit from a ketogenic diet.

Most people will do well keeping following proportions on their plate:

  • About 50-65% of non-starchy vegetables
  • About 15-25% of quality protein
  • About 15-30% of healthy fats
  • About 5-15% of healthy starches
  • Herbs, spices and salt

Healthy eating also includes eating fruits but preferably have them as a snack or a dessert.

Food groups: vegetables, fruit, protein rich foods, fat rich foods, herbs and spices, and heathy starches

Find your carbohydrate tolerance

First of all, having nutritious breakfasts with high quality protein and fat, (low-carbs) can be very powerful to stabilize your blood sugar.

For many people having little bit carbs for breakfast, a little more for lunch and even more for dinner will do the trick in keeping your blood sugar stable.

To find your carbohydrate tolerance monitor following: if you feel sleepy or crave sugar after you eat, you probably have eaten too many carbohydrates. But in case of severe insulin resistance you may feel sleepy even if you haven’t eaten any starchy or sweet foods. Let’s say you had beef and a salad for lunch and you still feel sleepy after eating. It might suggest that you are at the advanced stage of insulin resistance. In this case, it’s worth working with a professional who can help you correct the problem with nutrition and nutraceuticals.

Information provided below is meant for educational purposes only, and does not constitute medical or nutritional advice or act as a substitute for seeking such advice from a qualified health professional. 

Reference list

  1. Rhea EM, Banks WA. Role of the Blood-Brain Barrier in Central Nervous System Insulin Resistance. Front Neurosci. 2019;13:521. Published 2019 Jun 4.
  2. Spinelli M, Fusco S, Grassi C. Brain Insulin Resistance and Hippocampal Plasticity: Mechanisms and Biomarkers of Cognitive Decline. Front Neurosci. 2019;13:788. Published 2019 Jul 31.
  3. Tao L, Liu H, Gong Y. Role and mechanism of the Th17/Treg cell balance in the development and progression of insulin resistance. Mol Cell Biochem. 2019;459(1-2):183–188.
  4. Ren N, Kim E, Li B, et al. Flavonoids Alleviating Insulin Resistance through Inhibition of Inflammatory Signaling. J Agric Food Chem. 2019;67(19):5361–5373.
  5. Gołąbek KD, Regulska-Ilow B. Dietary support in insulin resistance: An overview of current scientific reports. Adv Clin Exp Med. 2019;28(11):1577–1585.
  6. Yaribeygi H, Farrokhi FR, Butler AE, Sahebkar A. Insulin resistance: Review of the underlying molecular mechanisms. J Cell Physiol. 2019;234(6):8152–8161.
  7. Ballak DB, Stienstra R, Tack CJ, Dinarello CA, van Diepen JA. IL-1 family members in the pathogenesis and treatment of metabolic disease: Focus on adipose tissue inflammation and insulin resistance. Cytokine. 2015;75(2):280–290.
  8. Barazzoni R, Gortan Cappellari G, Ragni M, Nisoli E. Insulin resistance in obesity: an overview of fundamental alterations. Eat Weight Disord. 2018;23(2):149–157.
  9. Zand H, Morshedzadeh N, Naghashian F. Signaling pathways linking inflammation to insulin resistance. Diabetes Metab Syndr. 2017;11 Suppl 1:S307–S309.
  10. Maciejczyk M, Żebrowska E, Chabowski A. Insulin Resistance and Oxidative Stress in the Brain: What's New?. Int J Mol Sci. 2019;20(4):874. Published 2019 Feb 18.
  11. Petersen MC, Shulman GI. Mechanisms of Insulin Action and Insulin Resistance. Physiol Rev. 2018;98(4):2133–2223.
Category: Diseases, Nutrition icon April 16 2020
Dr Joanna Krzeslak-Hoogland
Author: Dr Joanna Krzeslak-Hoogland

Being inspired by the effect of nutrition, lifestyle and mind on our health, I am dedicated to help people on their journey to wellbeing.

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