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Metabolic Health

4 Surprising Symptoms of Insulin Resistance (and What to Do About Them)

Written by: Rebekah B.

Reviewed by: Emily J., MSc RD

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2023-01-17

6 minutes

Insulin resistance often comes with few noticeable symptoms, but there are warning signs to watch out for. From hair loss to sugar cravings, here are four of the surprising IR symptoms — and what to do about them.


​​Insulin resistance (IR) occurs when the cells in your body stop responding correctly to the hormone insulin, which regulates blood glucose levels. 

The pancreas has to pick up the slack by pumping out larger-than-normal amounts of insulin in order to achieve normal blood glucose levels. This causes the cells to become desensitized to those above-average insulin levels, causing the body to continuously need more insulin to achieve normal blood glucose. If left unchecked, this desensitization can lead to the development of metabolic conditions like Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease. 

IR often has few noticeable symptoms, which means most people with IR don’t know they have it until years down the road. But since it’s easier to reverse the negative effects of IR in the early stages, it’s important to catch it as soon as possible. 

​​Common Symptoms of Insulin Resistance 

While it can be hard to initially detect IR, there are certain symptoms or warning signs that may indicate its presence. Here are some of the most common insulin resistance symptoms:

Surprising Symptoms of Insulin Resistance​

While the points above are some of the most common symptoms, IR also has several lesser-known warning signs. Here are four other early symptoms that are worth looking out for if you suspect you are at risk for developing insulin resistance.   

1. Skin Tags or Dark Patches

Researchers have found that skin tags (small, harmless growths on the skin) or dark patches are often found on obese people, non-insulin-dependent diabetics, and those with insulin resistance [3].

Skin tags form when loose collagen (a kind of protein) and blood vessels get tangled underneath the skin, and are typically found around the neck, armpits, and groin, though they can sometimes appear on the eyelids as well [4].

While researchers suggest that overweight people tend to develop skin tags due to excessive skin-on-skin friction, other studies correlate multiple skin tags with Type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance. According to one study of 30 patients, having an unhealthy amount of insulin circulating in your blood (also known as hyperinsulinemia) and insulin resistance can activate IGF1, a hormone with a similar structure to insulin that helps regulate the growth of bones and tissues — which may contribute to the formation of skin tags [5]. 

Another study found that having multiple skin tags on the neck or in the armpit area is strongly linked to insulin resistance [6]. More research is needed to determine the exact mechanisms that cause this, but this much is certain: It’s important to pay attention to any unexpected skin tags or dark patches that appear on your skin. 

2. Hair Loss

One study of 324 women found that women who had some markers of insulin resistance (including waist circumference, neck circumference, waist-to-hip ratio, and insulin concentration in the blood, among others) had a significantly higher risk for female androgenic alopecia (AGA), or female pattern baldness [7]. This appears to happen in part because higher-than-average levels of sugar present in your bloodstream can reduce the growth cycle of your hair, which can lead to hair loss.

On top of that, researchers studying diabetic subjects have found that high blood glucose can lead to inflammation that reduces the function of your vascular (circulatory) system — i.e., the vessels that carry blood throughout your body. If your damaged blood vessels can’t deliver enough oxygen to your hair follicles, they stop growing normally [8].   

3. Sugar Cravings

Constantly craving cookies or ice cream doesn’t necessarily just mean that you have a sweet tooth; it could also mean that you are experiencing IR. A 2018 study highlighted how the hypothalamus (the part of the brain responsible for regulating energy intake) reacts to sugar by releasing dopamine [9]. Because dopamine is a chemical that makes you feel good, it’s easy to get addicted to the “high” of a sugar rush.

But chasing after sugar ignites a vicious roller coaster when it comes to your blood glucose levels. When you eat a food that’s high in refined sugar or simple carbs (i.e., something that has a high glycemix index), your blood sugar spikes quickly — especially if you’re not simultaneously consuming any fiber, protein, or fat to “soften” the spike.

Your body, sensing this sudden surge in blood glucose, releases insulin to catch up with the spike, often more than it actually needs. Once insulin does its job of letting glucose into your cells, your blood glucose drops fast, leading to a major dip or crash — a condition sometimes known as non-diabetic hypoglycemia.

In this state, you may feel lightheaded, shaky, and weak. Your body then triggers cravings for more sugar to bring you back up to normal levels, repeating the cycle and leading to a vicious roller coaster. These constant spikes and crashes over an extended period of time, known as “high glucose variability,” can decrease your insulin sensitivity and lead to IR, which makes it all the more difficult for your body to properly regulate glucose.  

Thankfully, you don’t have to remain on this sugar roller coaster forever. It’s important to remember that not all sugars are created equal. You can help regulate IR by getting glucose naturally from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

4. Constant Lethargy or Fatigue

A bad night of sleep can sometimes be to blame for feeling fatigued, but if it’s a consistent problem rather than a “once-in-a-blue-moon” issue, there may be other factors at play.

Research on diabetic patients has found strong correlations between insulin resistance and fatigue, but why does this happen [10]? One explanation is that decreased insulin sensitivity or insulin resistance (among diabetics and non-diabetics) results in high levels of glucose and insulin in the bloodstream, since your cells aren’t responding properly to insulin. People who experience this feel tired or lethargic because their cells are starved of glucose and can’t properly utilize it, even if more and more carbs are consumed.

Fatigue can also (ironically) make it harder for you to get a good night’s rest. One study found that subjects who were more fatigued had a harder time falling asleep, woke up throughout the night, and/or woke up before they wanted to [11]. Other research has linked poor sleep — even just one night — with decreased glucose tolerance.

Since your body repairs cells during sleep — and requires enough glucose (energy) to do so — you can easily end up feeling tired or lethargic if your body can’t properly regulate glucose uptake. This means that an erratic or inconsistent sleep schedule can reduce your body’s ability to properly regulate glucose levels and keep them within a healthy range, which activates a reinforcing cycle where blood sugar spikes and crashes make your sleep worse, which then triggers even more ups and downs — leading you toward IR in the long run.   

Key Takeaways

Skin tags, hair loss, sugar cravings, and constant lethargy or fatigue can all be subtle early warning signs of insulin resistance. If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor to see if IR might be to blame. If it is, here are some of the proactive steps you can take to help reverse it: 

References:

  1. https://mdpi-res.com/d_attachment/biomedicines/biomedicines-10-02374/article_deploy/biomedicines-10-02374.pdf?version=1663927136
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3996172/#:~:text=Whereas%2C%20in%20the%20state%20of,pressure%20%5B15%2C16%5D.
  3. https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(11)01765-8/fulltext#:~:text=Background%3A%20Multiple%20skin%20tags%20are,factor%2Dlike%20(IGF1).
  4. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/skin-tags/
  5. https://bmcdermatol.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12895-020-00111-0
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20464083/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12775957/ 
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3546345/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6234835/
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2905388/
  11. https://academic.oup.com/biomedgerontology/article/63/10/1069/559215