When Is Insulin Resistance Not Insulin Resistance?

by | Jun 13, 2023 | Treatment

True or False: Insulin resistance is a condition in which the cells of the body become less sensitive to the effects of insulin, therefore requiring higher levels of insulin in the bloodstream to carry out its primary function of managing blood sugar levels.
  1. Completely True
  2. Half true
  3. Completely False

Correct answer:

“b. Half true” 

It’s certainly completely true that insulin resistance is reduced sensitivity to the effects of insulin, which inhibits the function of maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. What’s misleading about the statement is the word “cells”, because it implies that insulin resistance is occurring in all cells of the body to the same degree and simultaneously, and that’s completely false.

In truth, you can have insulin resistance in one part of your body and not in another.

What You Should Know

If you have been reading eSavvyHealth Insights or have completed our Blood Sugar Basics course, you know that a primary function of insulin is to counteract the rise of blood sugar (glucose) levels that naturally occurs after the consumption of carbohydrates, by converting the glucose to glycogen and fat for storage. In order to do that, insulin primarily acts on your liver cells (stimulating them to convert glucose into fatty acids), your fat cells (stimulating them to bring fatty acids in from the blood and convert them into fat molecules, as well as to transport glucose directly into fat cells for conversion to fat within those cells), and your muscle cells (mostly by stimulating the conversion of glucose to glycogen, which can rapidly be converted back to glucose when the muscles need energy). But insulin affects each of these types of cells in a different way, which means that the degree of insulin resistance found in liver cells, for example, isn’t necessarily the same as the degree of insulin resistance found in fat cells or muscle cells.

Why does it matter? Because when insulin resistance develops in any one of these tissues—liver, muscle, or fat—the resulting raised insulin levels can then cause insulin resistance to subsequently develop in the others. Which means that if you want to prevent the development of insulin resistance—and you do want to prevent that—then you want to pay attention to what’s going on with each of those three tissue types. And because insulin resistance develops in different ways in relation to each tissue type, you need three different strategies to prevent it.

In your muscles, regular daily physical activity can help burn excess fuel so that it doesn’t “gum up the works,” creating insulin resistance. More intense activity will increase muscle mass and also increase the number of mitochondria (energy factories) in your cells, which again leads to more rapid and efficient fuel burning.

In your liver, alcohol is known to cause liver cells to accumulate fat and thereby become resistant to insulin, and the high levels of fructose found in many processed foods have the same effect. Both should be consumed in moderation.

As to fat cells, there’s a strong association between insulin resistance and excess visceral fat deposits (that’s fat around your organs, inside your abdominal muscle wall). Visceral fat isn’t necessarily visible, but if you DO notice that your belly is getting bigger then you’ll want to take action sooner rather than later to reduce it.

Keep in mind, though, that trying to reduce fat with diets that reduce your caloric intake is seldom successful in the long run. Consider instead intermittent fasting, increased physical activity (again!), and stress reduction (because chronic stress leads to chronically high levels of the hormone cortisol, which accelerates the accumulation of visceral fat).

More generally, not only does insulin resistance result in high levels of insulin in the blood, it is also caused by high levels of insulin. Many of the foods people eat stimulate insulin production, but one component of food is the world-champion insulin-raiser: refined carbohydrates. They’re a triple threat: to your liver cells, to your muscle cells, and to your fat cells.

Dave Hendry

Dave Hendry


Dave Hendry is co-founder of The 5 Fundamentals of Health and Fundamentals of Health Alliance. He has an extensive CV in research, education and curriculum development.

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