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Insulin resistance occurs when your body’s cells become less sensitive or responsive to insulin—a hormone that your pancreas produces. Insulin plays a crucial role in regulating your blood sugar levels by helping cells absorb glucose (sugar) from the food you eat for energy.

You may develop insulin resistance as a result of having consistently high blood sugar levels. Many people don’t realize they have insulin resistance until they take a blood test, especially because symptoms can go unnoticed in the early stages and develop gradually. As insulin resistance progresses, you may start noticing weight gain, frequent urination, and fatigue, among other symptoms. Without proper treatment, insulin resistance may progress to type 2 diabetes.

High Blood Sugar

High blood sugar—medically known as hyperglycemia—refers to high levels of glucose in your blood. This symptom is often one of the first signs of insulin resistance. If your healthcare provider suspects that you are showing signs of high blood sugar or may be at risk of diabetes, they may order a hemoglobin test, which checks for elevated blood sugar levels and measures your average blood sugar levels over the past three months.

An result that is less than 5.7% is considered a normal level. However, having a result between 5.7% and 6.4% can indicate that you are insulin-resistant and have prediabetes—a condition that means you have higher than normal blood sugar levels, but not high enough to classify you with type 2 diabetes.

High Cholesterol

Insulin plays a role in how your body regulates the usage and storage of fats and cholesterol. A simple blood test can show if you have high cholesterol. Your healthcare provider may suspect insulin resistance if you have a blood test with the following results:

  • Elevated triglycerides (blood fat)
  • Increased LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
  • Decreased HDL (“good”) cholesterol

Weight Gain

When your body becomes resistant to insulin, it’s more difficult for your body to properly use sugar as energy, which can lead to higher glucose levels in your bloodstream. In response to this action, your body produces more insulin to compensate for high blood sugar levels. But this excess insulin production can influence your body to store more fat than normal, especially around the waist. This abdominal weight gain is often associated with insulin resistance.

Fatigue

Fatigue is one of the hallmark symptoms of insulin resistance, prediabetes, and diabetes. Insulin resistance affects how effectively your cells absorb glucose for energy. As a result, your body struggles to use glucose efficiently, leading to a dip in energy and an increase in fatigue. Additionally, this condition can cause fluctuating changes in your blood sugar levels, which can also contribute to feeling more tired.

Frequent Urination

Frequent urination, is your body’s attempt to get rid of excess glucose. Having to use the restroom more often than what is normal for you is a common sign of insulin resistance and prediabetes.

When your glucose levels are high, the kidneys work hard to remove the excess glucose from the blood. Typically, glucose gets filtered out of the bloodstream and into the kidneys and then the kidneys reabsorb the sugar back into the bloodstream.

But, when blood glucose levels are consistently high, your kidneys can’t reabsorb all the excess sugar. This excess glucose in the kidneys forces your body to put the sugar into your urine and take water from your body’s tissues—which leads to an increase in urine production.

Skin Changes

If you develop insulin resistance or prediabetes, certain areas of your skin like the armpits or the back and sides of the neck might start to look darker in color. This condition is called acanthosis nigricans. Alongside darkened skin, these regions of your skin can also develop several small skin growths which are called skin tags.

When to Contact a Healthcare Provider 

If you suspect you might have insulin resistance or are experiencing symptoms like increased thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, or unexplained weight gain, it’s advisable to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. If you have a family history of diabetes or other related conditions, it might be a good idea to discuss this with your provider as well.

During your appointment, your provider can perform tests to determine if you have insulin resistance and offer guidance on how to manage the condition through lifestyle changes or medications if necessary.

Prevention

Some risk factors for insulin resistance can’t be changed, like your age and family medical history. But certain lifestyle modifications can help lower your risk of developing insulin resistance, such as:

  • Maintain a healthy weight 
  • Exercise regularly 
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet low in processed foods and high in fiber, fruits, and leafy green vegetables 
  • Manage stress with relaxation techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises, and support from family and friends 
  • Get regular health check-ups from your healthcare provider, including blood work to monitor your blood sugar levels