Insulin Resistance Syndrome

Also indexed as:Syndrome X, Metabolic Syndrome
Reduce your insulin-resistance risk by focusing on diet and lifestyle. According to research or other evidence, the following self-care steps may be helpful.
Insulin Resistance Syndrome: Main Image

About This Condition

The insulin resistance syndrome (IRS; also called metabolic syndrome) is a group of health risk factors that increase the likelihood of heart disease,1, 2, 3, 4 and perhaps other disorders, such as diabetes and some cancers.5, 6 The risk factors that make up IRS include insulin resistance, which refers to the reduced ability of the hormone insulin to control the processing of glucose by the body. Other major risk factors often associated with IRS include high blood sugar and high blood triglycerides, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, high blood pressure, and excessive body fat in the abdominal region. People with IRS do not always have every one of these risk factors, but they usually have many of them. A qualified doctor should make the diagnosis of IRS after a thorough examination and blood tests.

Most people with type 2 diabetes have insulin resistance, but many more people who are not diabetic also have insulin resistance.7, 8, 9 Since insulin resistance itself often does not cause symptoms, these people may not be aware of their problem. Some authorities believe insulin resistance is partially inherited and partially due to lifestyle factors.

In addition to the recommendations discussed below, people with IRS may benefit from some of the recommendations given for type 2 diabetes. People with IRS should also benefit from health strategies that reduce the severity of the risk factors they possess, including obesity, high triglycerides, and high blood pressure.


People with IRS may be overweight (especially in the trunk area), feel sluggish after eating, and may have been told that they have high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

Obesity, especially when fat accumulates in the abdominal region, increases the severity of insulin resistance,10, 11 and has been associated with IRS.12, 13 Loss of excess weight tends to improve insulin sensitivity (i.e., reduce insulin resistance),14, 15 and this has been recently shown to be true for people with IRS as well.16 Weight loss also reduces many of the other health risk factors associated with IRS.17

Cigarette smoking, in most,18, 19 though not all,20 studies, as well as exposure to secondhand smoke21 and use of nicotine replacement products,22, 23 have been associated with insulin resistance. Smoking cessation has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity in healthy people.24

Alcohol consumption in the light to moderate range (up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men25) is associated with better insulin sensitivity in healthy, nondiabetic people.26, 27, 28, 29 Since alcohol consumption also reduces other risk factors for heart disease,30, 31 it does not appear that people with IRS would benefit from avoiding alcohol if they are currently light to moderate drinkers. However, alcohol is potentially addicting and can increase the risk of other diseases, so people with IRS who are not users of alcohol should consult a doctor before starting regular consumption of alcoholic beverages.

Either aerobic exercise or strength training improves insulin sensitivity in both healthy and insulin-resistant people in most studies, 32, 33 though a recent controlled trial found that aerobic exercise alone did not affect insulin resistance in people with IRS.34 Studies comparing strength training to aerobic exercise in insulin-resistant people have reported greater benefits from strength training,35, 36 but a combination of the two will probably be more effective than either one alone. Current recommendations for exercise includes about 30 minutes per day of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening exercises (working all major muscle groups) at least two days per week.37, 38, 39 In addition, exercise has many benefits in reducing many of the risk factors associated with IRS.40

Some popular diet books claim that insulin resistance causes weight gain and prevents successful weight loss. However, one controlled study found no difference in the number of women experiencing successful short-term weight loss between women with or without insulin resistance.41

Insulin sensitivity decreases after certain stressful experiences, such as surgery,42 and decreased insulin sensitivity is associated with work-related mental and emotional stress,43 and other aspects of a stressful lifestyle.44 However, these associations have not been explored in people with IRS, nor has stress reduction been investigated as a treatment for IRS.

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The information presented by Healthnotes is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires December 2020.