Insulin Resistance and Your Heart

Medically Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on March 17, 2024
3 min read

Insulin resistance means your body isn’t using the hormone insulin the right way. Insulin helps move the glucose (sugar) in your blood to parts of your body that need it to make energy, like the cells in your muscles. When the process works correctly, the level of glucose in your blood should be in a low and steady range.

When you have insulin resistance, your cells aren’t reacting to insulin the way they’re supposed to -- they’re resisting it -- and sugar stays in your blood. As it builds up and reaches levels that stay high over time, the problem can turn into diabetes.

There’s also a serious link between insulin resistance and other parts of your health, including your heart health.

A one-point rise in your A1c, the blood test that measures blood sugar levels over time, can boost your chances of having cardiovascular disease by up to 18%. That’s because there are many ways that insulin resistance affects your heart and blood vessels.

Insulin resistance raises blood sugar levels, and high blood sugar leads to inflammation, which damages the lining inside arteries. That damage could make it easier for plaque to build up in arteries -- people with diabetes tend to have high cholesterol, especially a small, dense kind of LDL cholesterol that can more easily slip inside blood vessel walls and create plaque. Plus, blood vessel walls get stiffer, which contributes to high blood pressure.

High blood sugar and inflammation also damage the nerves that control your heart. All of these changes can lead to diseases in your heart and blood vessels.

Insulin resistance and diabetes can cause many types of heart-related conditions. Heart disease happens when blocked arteries create problems with blood flow. That can lead to symptoms like chest pain, called angina.

Insulin resistance can also lead to weight gain. Being overweight can strain the heart and lead to heart failure. When this happens, the heart can’t pump blood as well as it should. Fluid can build in your legs and in your lungs. It can feel hard to breathe.

If plaque builds up in one of your heart’s arteries and completely blocks blood flow, you’ll have a heart attack. If one of the arteries to your brain gets blocked, you’ll have a stroke.

Peripheral arterial disease is when you have narrowed arteries in the legs. You might feel pain anywhere in your lower body when you move.

Early diagnosis and treatment of heart disease and getting control of your blood sugar can help relieve symptoms and delay or stop these conditions from getting worse.

A mix of lifestyle changes and medication can help you better manage blood sugar and heart health:

  • Lose weight. When you shed even a few extra pounds, you can lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
  • Commit to a heart-healthy diet that also fights inflammation. Get plenty of vegetables and other sources of fiber every day. Cut sugars, saturated fat, trans fat, and salt.
  • Get active. Build up to at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on 5 days of the week. Fun activities count, too, like gardening and going for a walk. And don’t forget to work your muscles -- do strengthening exercises at least 2 days per week. Before you try a new activity, though, ask your doctor if it’s safe for you.
  • Stop smoking, and cut back on alcohol. Women who drink should have less than one serving a day, and men should have less than two per day, unless your doctor advises even less.
  • Control high blood pressure and high cholesterol. You can do this with a combination of healthy habits and medication.