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Beyond Blood Sugar: Rethinking Insulin Resistance

Part 1

For many, achieving good health often boils down to one number: blood sugar. But what if there's a bigger picture to consider? This blog dives into the concepts of insulin resistance and metabolic health, exploring the crucial role they play in our overall well-being.

Today, we delve deeper into the complexities of insulin resistance, specifically addressing a crucial paradigm shift that's essential for effectively managing this condition.

The Flawed Glucose-Centric View: A Missed Opportunity

Traditionally, the medical field has primarily focused on blood sugar levels when diagnosing and managing insulin resistance. While maintaining healthy blood sugar is undoubtedly important, it's vital to recognize the bigger picture.

Credit: Freepic - Vectorjuice

The Canary in the Coal Mine: Elevated Insulin as an Early Warning

At the core of the issue lies a simple fact: insulin resistance, in its early stages, is often characterized by elevated insulin levels in the blood, not necessarily elevated blood sugar. The body, in a commendable effort to compensate for insulin resistance, ramps up insulin production to keep glucose levels in check. Imagine a car engine working harder to maintain speed with a faulty transmission – that's what's happening here.

Here's where the traditional approach falls short:

  • Elevated insulin levels can rise significantly (up to 20 years!) before glucose levels become abnormal. This elevated insulin serves as an early warning sign of impending trouble, a canary in the coal mine that often goes unnoticed due to our hyper-focus on glucose.

  • By solely focusing on glucose, we potentially miss the chance to intervene early and prevent the progression of insulin resistance and its downstream consequences. Early detection and intervention are crucial for managing any health condition, and insulin resistance is no exception.

Insulin Resistance: When Cellular Communication Breaks Down

Imagine insulin as a messenger, knocking on the door of your cells, like a muscle/fat cell, to deliver glucose, the fuel your cells need for energy. In a healthy scenario, the doors readily open, and the cells efficiently absorb the glucose upon insulin's instruction.

However, over time, due to various factors we'll explore later, these cellular doors become less responsive. The insulin "knocks" might be heard faintly, or maybe the door opens just a crack. This is the essence of insulin resistance – cells become resistant to insulin's message.

Credit: Micoope

Important Nuances: Selective Resistance and Elevated Insulin

It's crucial to note that insulin resistance isn't a uniform phenomenon. Not all cells are affected equally. Some cells lose their sensitivity to insulin's message, while others continue to respond normally. This is very important to keep in mind, as this phenomenon leads to a host of metabolic conditions.

Here's another key point often overlooked: insulin resistance is almost always accompanied by elevated blood insulin levels, a condition called hyperinsulinemia. Think of it as two sides of the same coin.

Hyperinsulinemia: A Compensatory Response (with Unintended Consequences)

When some cells become resistant, the pancreas, the organ that produces insulin, ramps up production to compensate. This leads to higher levels of insulin circulating in the bloodstream – hyperinsulinemia.

Here's where things get interesting. While some cells are resistant, others remain insulin-sensitive. These overstimulated cells experience an exaggerated response to the elevated insulin levels, essentially getting more than they need.

Glucose Transporter


Insulin Dependence

Primary Function


Impact of Glucose Concentration


Throughout the body (red blood cells, brain, kidneys)


Basal glucose uptake, ensures steady supply


Significant impact on transport rate. GLUT1 is nearly saturated at normal blood glucose concentrations, but increased glucose levels can further enhance uptake.


Liver, intestines, kidneys


Liver function, intestinal sugar absorption, kidney glucose reabsorption


Significant impact on transport rate. At lower glucose concentrations, GLUT2 plays a role in reabsorption (kidneys) or uptake (liver). At higher concentrations, transport increases.


Brain, placenta (focally), Ovaries

Partially Insulin-dependent

Glucose uptake for brain energy, possible role in fetal development (placenta)

Very High

Less impact on transport rate due to extremely high affinity. However, extremely low glucose levels can still limit uptake.


Skeletal muscle, adipose tissue (fat cells)


Major transporter for muscle and fat cell glucose uptake, energy storage


Significant impact on transport rate. In the absence of insulin, GLUT4 is inactive regardless of glucose concentration. With insulin, glucose concentration influences uptake considerably.

Impact on Hyperinsulinemia

  • In conditions like insulin resistance (e.g., type 2 diabetes), some cells, particularly muscle and fat cells, become less responsive to insulin's signal. This means GLUT4 translocation is impaired, and glucose uptake by these tissues decreases.

  • To compensate for the decreased glucose uptake, the pancreas increases insulin production, leading to hyperinsulinemia (high blood sugar levels).

  • While some cells are resistant, others like those expressing GLUT1 (e.g., red blood cells) can still be responsive to high insulin levels. This can lead to excessive glucose uptake in these tissues, even though they might not necessarily need it.

Connecting Affinity and Concentration

  • The varying affinities of glucose transporters come into play here. While GLUT4 requires insulin for activation, transporters like GLUT1 and GLUT2 are still functional even in hyperinsulinemic states.

  • High blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia) can further increase glucose uptake through these transporters in some tissues, even if they don't necessarily need the extra glucose.

The Outcome: A Dysfunctional System

The net result of insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia is a dysfunctional system. Cells that need glucose aren't getting it efficiently, while others are overreacting to excess insulin. This can lead to a cascade of problems, including chronic high blood sugar and metabolic imbalances, which lead to:

  • Increased Androgen Production:  High insulin levels might indirectly stimulate the ovaries (which express GLUT1 and GLUT3) to produce more androgens through complex cellular signaling pathways. Even if these cells don't necessarily need more glucose, the hormonal environment created by hyperinsulinemia might contribute to androgen production.

  • Altered Ovarian Function:  There's ongoing research on the possibility that impaired insulin signaling within the ovaries, even in the presence of high circulating insulin, might disrupt normal ovarian function and contribute to PCOS development. This could involve complex interactions beyond just direct glucose uptake.

  • Increased IGF-1 Production: Hyperinsulinemia can also lead to increased IGF-1 production by the liver. IGF-1 can further stimulate androgen production in the ovaries, contributing to the hormonal imbalance in PCOS.

  • Hyperinsulinemia and elevated IGF-1 are considered key contributors to metabolic syndrome. They can promote insulin resistance, fat storage, and inflammation, all of which play a role in the development of this condition.

The Paradigm Shift: A Focus on Insulin as a Marker

A shift in perspective is needed. By acknowledging the limitations of the glucose-centric view and recognizing the crucial role of insulin, we can move towards a more comprehensive understanding of insulin resistance. Here's why insulin deserves more attention:

  • Insulin levels can provide a valuable window into cellular communication and fuel usage within the body. By monitoring insulin levels, we gain a deeper understanding of how effectively insulin is working and how well your body is utilizing glucose for energy.

  • Focusing on insulin as a marker allows for earlier detection of insulin resistance, paving the way for preventative measures and lifestyle changes. Early intervention is key to preventing the progression of insulin resistance and its associated health risks.

Moving Beyond: Inadvertently Worsening the Problem

In some cases, our current approach to managing insulin resistance can have unintended consequences. Here's how:

  • Some treatment options, when blood sugar finally becomes uncontrolled, involve increasing insulin levels through injections or medications. While this might lower glucose in the short term, it can exacerbate the underlying insulin resistance in the long run.

  • This focus on lowering blood sugar through increased insulin creates a vicious cycle. The more insulin is pushed, the worse the insulin resistance becomes. This cycle can contribute to the development of various chronic diseases.

The Takeaway: A Broader Perspective is Key

By acknowledging the limitations of the glucose-centric view and recognizing the crucial role of insulin, we can move towards a more comprehensive understanding of insulin resistance. Focusing on insulin as a marker and implementing lifestyle changes that address the root causes become essential for effectively managing and preventing this condition.

Looking Ahead: Solutions on the Horizon

In future discussions, we'll delve deeper into the factors contributing to insulin resistance, explore effective lifestyle strategies, and shed light on the connection between insulin resistance and various chronic diseases. Remember, knowledge is power. By equipping yourself with a deeper understanding of insulin resistance, you can take control of your metabolic health and pave the way for a healthier future.


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