Insulin resistance is a condition in which the insulin produced by the pancreas becomes less effective at lowering blood sugar levels. It is a defining feature of metabolic syndrome, along with obesity, hypertension and dyslipidemia -- high cholesterol -- fat-like substance and triglycerides -- fat stored in the body. Insulin resistance is also a key factor in the development of type 2 diabetes and a risk factor for heart disease. The female hormone estrogen may play a role in protecting against insulin resistance and diabetes. Scientific studies are investigating the estrogen-mediated regulation of glucose levels.
Insulin Resistance Basics
Insulin is a hormone produced by beta-cells, a specialized kind of cell in the pancreas. Insulin released from the beta-cells helps other cells in the body take up and utilize blood glucose, which is produced by the breakdown of food by digestion. In insulin resistance, muscle, liver and fat cells fail to respond to the insulin secreted by the beta-cells. The body needs higher amounts of insulin in order to take up and use glucose. Persistent insulin resistance, marked by high levels of glucose and insulin in the blood, eventually leads to diabetes.
Effects of Estrogen
Estrogen is a steroid hormone produced primarily in the ovaries, and to a much lesser extent in other cells, like fat tissue. Small amounts of estrogen are also produced in men. Estrogen production from the ovaries declines around and after menopause. The decrease in insulin sensitivity with menopause suggests that estrogen generally protects against insulin resistance in women. Moreover, loss of estrogen function has been shown to cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes in a male patient.
Mechanism of action
Estrogen acts directly on beta-cells to make them resistant to apoptosis -- a kind of cell death-- and increase insulin production. This mechanism is thought to assist the pancreatic cells to adapt to higher insulin demands associated with some conditions, like pregnancy and obesity. However inappropriate estrogen function, due to abnormal increases in estrogen or stimulation with estrogen-mimics like bisphenol-A, can actually provoke insulin resistance by exhausting beta-cells through overstimulation.
Risk Factors and Treatment
Risk factors for developing insulin resistance include obesity -- a body mass index above 25; excess weight, especially around the waist or an “apple shape; having a parent or sibling with diabetes; physical inactivity; and in women, having polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS. Extensive lifestyle modification -- by increasing physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight -- is the first recommendation for patients with insulin resistance. Many drugs are used to treat insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, if present, and other features of metabolic syndrome. However, Metformin is the only drug to be considered for preventing development of insulin resistance into diabetes.