What Is Insulin and What Does It Do?
Insulin is a hormone your pancreas makes to help your body control how much sugar (or glucose) stays in your blood. When you eat or drink, your body breaks down nutrients, such as carbohydrates, into glucose, which enters your bloodstream. Your pancreas then releases insulin to allow the body to turn that glucose into energy. Diabetes occurs when this process is compromised. With type 1 diabetes, your pancreas can't produce enough insulin. With type 2 diabetes, your pancreas produces enough insulin, but your body can't use it properly.
Your pancreas plays a delicate balancing act to manage blood sugar. Too much glucose in the blood is called hyperglycemia. Prolonged hyperglycemia can cause damage to your eyes, kidneys, heart, blood vessels and other parts of your body. On the other hand, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) is more common in type 1 diabetes and can occur for many reasons such as taking too much insulin medication and not eating enough carbs. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include fast heartbeat, shaking, sweating, dizziness or hunger.
What Is Insulin Resistance?
Insulin resistance (sometimes called impaired insulin sensitivity) means your body's muscles, fat and liver don't respond to insulin as they should. In other words, they resist it.
Here's how resistance to insulin works: First, your body senses that it is not making enough insulin to manage blood sugar levels, so your pancreas produces more insulin to try to make up for it. This may work for a period of time, but it becomes increasingly difficult for your pancreas to keep up. Eventually, your blood sugar levels start to climb above normal levels, leading to prediabetes. Prediabetes often leads to type 2 diabetes. However, if you make changes to your lifestyle, including getting your blood sugar under control early on, you may delay the onset of diabetes or avoid it altogether.
Insulin resistance is commonly associated with type 2 diabetes. But insulin resistance can also happen with type 1 diabetes. If you have type 1 diabetes and notice that you need increasing amounts of insulin to keep your blood sugar levels stable, you may be developing a resistance to insulin.
What Are the Risk Factors for Insulin Resistance?
Certain genetic and lifestyle factors can put you at higher risk for developing insulin resistance:
- Overweight or obesity
- Physical inactivity
- Age (45 years or older)
- Family history of diabetes
- History of certain chronic diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy)
- African American, Alaska Native, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino/Latina, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander ethnicity
If you fall into any of these categories, speak with your healthcare provider for further guidance and testing.
Nutrition Tips to Manage Blood Sugar Levels
If you've been diagnosed with prediabetes or diabetes, paying attention to what you eat can go a long way toward your health. There is not one meal plan recommended for prediabetes or diabetes, so it is important to work with your doctor or a registered dietitian to find the best eating pattern for your lifestyle.
The American Diabetes Association recommends the Diabetes Plate Method. According to this method, half of your plate should be a non-starchy vegetable, such as broccoli, carrots or tomatoes. One-quarter should be complex carbohydrates, such as beans, brown rice or whole-wheat pasta. The final quarter should be protein, like eggs, poultry or fish.
In addition to prioritizing balanced nutrition, follow these tips:
- Exercise for at least 2.5 hours a week. It doesn't have to be high-intensity exercise — just get your body moving and your heart rate up.
- If you take over-the-counter or prescription medications, ask your pharmacist if they might interfere with your blood sugar.
If you're feeling unsure about how to best manage your blood sugar, consult your healthcare provider. They may be able to refer you to a registered dietitian to help guide your nutrition choices. At the end of the day, you're not alone in your healthcare journey, but you have the power to set yourself on the right track.