Insulin resistance

Author: Dr Nicholas De Rosa, Unaccredited Trainee in Dermatology, Dept. of Dermatology, St. Vincent’s Hospital Sydney, NSW, Australia. DermNet New Zealand Editor in Chief: Hon A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand. July 2017.

What is insulin?

Insulin is a polypeptide hormone that is produced by beta cells of the pancreas and controls blood glucose (sugar) concentrations. High blood glucose concentrations stimulate secretion of insulin, which transfers glucose from the bloodstream into muscle, fat and liver cells. This promotes storage of glucose for future energy needs, and in healthy individuals, this feedback mechanism keeps serum glucose concentration normal (euglycaemia).

What is insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance is defined as a subnormal glucose response to a given concentration of insulin.

The biological progression of insulin resistance first involves high levels of insulin (hyperinsulinaemia) after meals and is later followed by fasting hyperinsulinaemia. Failure of compensatory mechanisms to maintain euglycaemia lead to hyperglycaemia, impaired glucose tolerance and diabetes mellitus.

Who gets insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance is found in both males and females of all races and ethnicities. It is especially prevalent where people lead a sedentary lifestyle and consume a Western diet.  

Causes of insulin resistance

Insulin resistance is influenced by a combination of genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors.

Inherited conditions

Insulin resistance can rarely be the result of an inherited metabolic condition. These include:

Secondary insulin resistance

The majority of patients have secondary insulin resistance, which may be multifactorial. 

What are the clinical features of insulin resistance? 

Insulin resistance is associated with a wide variety of clinical presentations, including:

Insulin resistance is thought to induce skin changes through hyperinsulinemia, which activates insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1) receptors in fibroblasts and keratinocytes and stimulates their proliferation. Hyperinsulinemia can also influence sex steroid production and increase free testosterone

What are the dermatological symptoms of insulin resistance?

The skin manifestations of insulin resistance can help to diagnose the condition and its complications.

Skin diseases that have commonly been associated with insulin resistance and the metabolic syndrome include:

What are the complications of insulin resistance?

The long term consequences of insulin resistance include the effects of diabetes (eg, peripheral vascular disease, kidney disease, and visual complications), and certain malignancies associated with obesity and insulin resistance (eg, colon, breast, and endometrial cancers).

The hyperinsulinemia, hyperglycaemia, and release of adipocyte cytokines associated with insulin resistance, lead to vascular endothelial dysfunction, dyslipidaemia, hypertension, and vascular inflammation. These effects promote the development of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

How is insulin resistance diagnosed?

There is currently no validated test to measure insulin resistance in clinical practice and the diagnosis is usually made clinically. 

The euglycaemic insulin clamp technique is the gold standard technique to diagnose insulin resistance in the research setting. It is complex, invasive and costly, and rarely used in clinical practice.

Blood tests in patients with insulin resistance may reveal:

The presence of obesity, hypertension, increased fasting glucose and triglyceride concentrations, and low HDL are used to diagnose metabolic syndrome.

The diagnosis of polycystic ovarian syndrome may be supported by the detection of multiple ovarian cysts on pelvic ultrasound examination.

What is the treatment for insulin resistance?

There are no published guidelines on the management of insulin resistance per se.

Treatment that has been shown to decrease insulin resistance includes:

Related information

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