Insulin resistance increases cardiovascular disease

Insulin resistance (IR), resistance of the insulin receptor due to overstimulation, elicits a rise of insulin levels to overcome the reduced receptor sensitivity. The resulting elevated insulin levels damage tissues throughout the body, and are a major contributing cause of cardiovascular disease. This is well known to many practitioners, so it was disturbing to read an article in the New York Times describing endocrinologists who are baffled by the fact that medications for type 2 diabetes that increase insulin levels worsen the risk for cardiovascular disease. The wealth of scientific evidence has been accumulating for a long time.

Insulin resistance and coronary artery disease

Insulin resistance and CADA study published in 1996 in the journal Diabetologia described the strong connection between CAD (coronary artery disease) and insulin resistance with its consequent hyperinsulinemia.

“The purpose of the present study was to quantitate insulin-mediated glucose disposal in normal glucose tolerant patients with angiographically documented coronary artery disease (CAD) and to define the pathways responsible for the insulin resistance.”

Of particular interest is that all the study subjects, both those with CAD and controls, had a normal oral glucose tolerance test. HOWEVER…

Fasting plasma insulin concentration and area under the plasma insulin curve following glucose ingestion were increased in CAD vs control subjects. Insulin-mediated whole body glucose disposal was significantly decreased in CAD subjects and this was entirely due to diminished non-oxidative glucose disposal. The magnitude of insulin resistance was positively correlated with the severity of CAD.”

It is hard to over emphasize the importance to clinicians of being vigilant in recognizing insulin resistance in the presence of normal glucose levels.

“In the CAD subjects basal and insulin-mediated rates of glucose and lipid oxidation were normal and insulin caused a normal suppression of hepatic glucose production. In conclusion, subjects with angiographically documented CAD are characterized by moderate-severe insulin resistance and hyperinsulinaemia and should be included in the metabolic and cardiovascular cluster of disorders that comprise the insulin resistance syndrome or ’syndrome X’.

Hypertension, Dyslipidemia, and Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease

In 1991 a paper published in Diabetes Care described how insulin resistance promotes multiple factors that cause atherosclerosis.

“Diabetes mellitus is commonly associated with systolic/diastolic hypertension, and a wealth of epidemiological data suggest that this association is independent of age and obesity. Much evidence indicates that the link between diabetes and essential hypertension is hyperinsulinemia. Thus, when hypertensive patients, whether obese or of normal body weight, are compared with age- and weight-matched normotensive control subjects, a heightened plasma insulin response to a glucose challenge is consistently found.”


“…insulin resistance…correlates directly with the severity of hypertension. The reasons for the association of insulin resistance and essential hypertension can be sought in at least four general types of mechanisms: Na+ retention, sympathetic nervous system overactivity, disturbed membrane ion transport, and proliferation of vascular smooth muscle cells.”

It is also well-known that IR with its hyperinsulinemia cause elevated lipid levels.

Insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia are also associated with an atherogenic plasma lipid profile. Elevated plasma insulin concentrations enhance very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) synthesis, leading to hypertriglyceridemia. Progressive elimination of lipid and apolipoproteins from the VLDL particle leads to an increased formation of intermediate-density and low-density lipoproteins, both of which are atherogenic.”

And elevated insulin directly fosters atherosclerosis:

“Last, insulin, independent of its effects on blood pressure and plasma lipids, is known to be atherogenic. The hormone enhances cholesterol transport into arteriolar smooth muscle cells and increases endogenous lipid synthesis by these cells. Insulin also stimulates the proliferation of arteriolar smooth muscle cells, augments collagen synthesis in the vascular wall, increases the formation of and decreases the regression of lipid plaques, and stimulates the production of various growth factors. In summary, insulin resistance appears to be a syndrome that is associated with a clustering of metabolic disorders, including non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, obesity, hypertension, lipid abnormalities, and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.”


Controlling insulin resistance more important than glucose or LDLA more recent study in Diabetes Care presents striking data demonstrating the massive impact reduction in heart attacks that would occur by preventing insulin resistance. In setting out to determine what portion of coronary artery disease is caused by IR, the authors used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1998–2004 to simulate a population representative of young adults in the U.S. They applied the Archimedes model was to estimate the proportion of heart attacks that would be prevented by maintaining insulin resistance at healthy levels. Their data painted a dramatic picture:

“In young adults, preventing insulin resistance would prevent ∼42% of myocardial infarctions. The next most important determinant of CAD is systolic hypertension, prevention of which would reduce myocardial infarctions by ∼36%. Following systolic blood pressure, the most important determinants are HDL cholesterol (31%), BMI (21%), LDL cholesterol (16%), triglycerides (10%), fasting plasma glucose and smoking (both ∼9%), and family history (4%).”

Preventing insulin resistance beat the pants off controlling LDL cholesterol and smoking! Interestingly, they found that the effects were especially important for women:

“The effects of insulin resistance are also affected by sex. Today’s young men face a higher rate of myocardial infarctions than today’s young women: 55 vs. 32%. However, insulin resistance plays a larger relative role in women than in men, with normalization of insulin resistance reducing the myocardial infarction rate ∼57% for women (from 32 to 14%), compared with ∼29% (from 55 to 39%) for men.”

Preventing insulin resistance carries more weight than controlling glucose

In their conclusion the authors make points that are crucial for clinicians to bear in mind:

“Of the risk factors that we believe are sufficiently well studied to permit quantitative analysis, insulin resistance is the most important single risk factor for CAD. Our results indicate that insulin resistance is responsible for approximately 42% of myocardial infarctions. Its effect on CAD is indirect, mediated through its effects on other variables such as SBP, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, and apoB.”

Effect of insulin resistance on myocardial infarction

In comparing their results with other research, the authors highlight the critical error made by depending on medications that increase insulin to control glucose:

“Our results are not directly comparable with those of clinical trials, where the effects of glucose lowering on CAD were either much smaller or null. The reason is that in the clinical trials, the focus was on lowering blood glucose—not preventing or curing insulin resistance. The drugs used in the trials either lowered glucose without affecting insulin resistance (e.g., sulfonylureas and insulin) or lowered insulin resistance to some extent but did not eliminate it (e.g., metformin and rosiglitazone). Furthermore, we normalized insulin resistance over the entire lifetimes of the subjects, whereas the treatments in the trials were given only after individuals had developed diabetes and were given only for the limited durations of the studies. Thus, the results of the trials do not represent the full eff

ect of normalizing insulin resistance and are actually consistent with our results.”

Note the implication that cardiovascular damage by IR occurs long before losing glucose control and crossing the border into diabetes territory.

Insulin resistance without diabetes causes cardiovascular disease

Investigators publishing in PLoS One make the same point about cardiovascular damage caused by IR well before diabetes sets in.

“To enable a comparison between cardiovascular disease risks for glucose, insulin and HOMA-IR, we calculated pooled relative risks per increase of one standard deviation…We included 65 studies (involving 516,325 participants) in this meta-analysis. In a random-effect meta-analysis the pooled relative risk of CHD (95% CI; I2) comparing high to low concentrations was 1.52 (1.31, 1.76; 62.4%) for glucose, 1.12 (0.92, 1.37; 41.0%) for insulin and 1.64 (1.35, 2.00; 0%) for HOMA-IR. The pooled relative risk of CHD per one standard deviation increase was 1.21 (1.13, 1.30; 64.9%) for glucose, 1.04 (0.96, 1.12; 43.0%) for insulin and 1.46 (1.26, 1.69; 0.0%) for HOMA-IR.”

They concluded that insulin resistance (HOMA-IR) was the leading culprit:

“The relative risk of cardiovascular disease was higher for an increase of one standard deviation in HOMA-IR compared to an increase of one standard deviation in fasting glucose or fasting insulin concentration.”

The authors also demonstrate that IR is a much better biomarker than fasting insulin:

 “The present meta-analyses showed that fasting glucose, fasting insulin and HOMA-IR were all associated with incident cardiovascular disease in individuals without diabetes. In a standardized meta-analysis we found that coronary heart disease risk increased with 46% for an increase of one standard deviation in HOMA-IR concentration compared to an increase of 21% for fasting glucose concentration and an increase of 4% for fasting insulin concentration.”

Insulin resistance causes fat expansion and vascular endothelial damage

An excellent paper published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology details how IR causes cardiovascular disease beyond abnormal glucose, lipids, hypertension, and its proinflammatory effects.

“…insulin’s action directly on vascular endothelium, atherosclerotic plaque macrophages, and in the heart, kidney, and retina has now been described, and impaired insulin signaling in these locations can alter progression of cardiovascular disease in the metabolic syndrome and affect development of microvascular complications.”

The authors describe how IR causes vascular inflammation and atherosclerosis:

“Insulin action directly on vascular endothelial cells affects endothelial function beyond regulating blood flow or capillary recruitment. Conditional knockout of the insulin receptor in endothelial cells causes a 2- to 3-fold increase in the atherosclerotic lesion size in apolipoprotein E–null mice…the increased atherogenesis in this model can be attributed to insulin action directly on endothelial cells rather than effects mediated through systemic parameters. The accelerated atherosclerosis in mice with endothelial cell insulin receptor knockout is preceded by a dramatic increase in leukocyte rolling and adhesion to endothelium and an increase in expression of vascular cell adhesion molecule-1…insulin signaling independent of NO is responsible for this effect.”

They state that IR promotes the necrotic core at the heart of vulnerable plaque:

Insulin resistance in macrophages, however, promotes formation of a necrotic core in atherosclerotic plaques by enhancing macrophage apoptosis. This is an important event in advanced atherosclerosis because exposure of the necrotic core to circulating blood in the event of plaque rupture can precipitate thrombosis, leading to unstable angina pectoris, transitory cerebral ischemia, stroke, or myocardial infarction.”

Regarding cardiomyocyte function…

“…it is likely that the changes in metabolic substrate inflexibility and increased mitochondrial production of oxidants caused by cardiomyocyte insulin resistance can contribute to development of heart failure in the metabolic syndrome.”

The authors conclude with important clinical points:

“Research on insulin receptor signaling using tissue–specific gene manipulation in mice as well as other methods has provided important insights into insulin action and revealed insulin effects in tissues that a decade or 2 ago were considered nonresponsive to insulin….insulin sensitizers would theoretically have better profiles of action if they improved insulin resistance in tissues regulating glucose and lipid metabolism, as well as in the endothelium and other vascular tissues where impaired insulin signaling is proatherosclerotic independent of metabolic effects. Second, insulin analogues should be carefully evaluated for deleterious effects on insulin signaling pathways which are not affected by insulin resistance, such as those pathways which promote dyslipidemia or increase vascular expression of endothelin-1.”

Insulin resistance promotes advanced plaque progression

A paper published in Cell Metabolism details additional mechanisms by which IR promotes atherosclerosis. The authors note that…

“…the pathophysiological processes involved in the initiation and progression of early lesions are quite different from those that cause the formation of clinically dangerous plaques,…advanced plaque progression is influenced primarily by processes that promote plaque necrosis and thinning of a collagenous “scar” overlying the lesion called the fibrous cap… and distinguishing the effects of insulin resistance and hyperglycemia on these processes is critically important.”

They echo other investigators who point out the crucial fact that insulin resistance does damage before glucose control is lost:

“There is ample clinical evidence that insulin resistance increases the risk for coronary artery disease (CAD) even in the absence of hyperglycemia. Insulin resistance syndromes can promote both atherogenesis and advanced plaque progression, and the mechanisms likely involve both systemic factors that promote these processes, particularly dyslipidemia but also hypertension and a proinflammatory state, as well as the effect of perturbed insulin signaling at the level of the intimal cells that participate in atherosclerosis, including endothelial cells, vascular smooth muscle cells, and macrophages.”

They highlight the critical clinical implication that insulin resistance also entails overstimulation of various tissues by insulin elevated in compensation for receptor resistance or by insulin-elevating medications:

“…“insulin resistance” can mean either defective insulin receptor signaling or, ironically, overstimulation of insulin receptor pathways caused by hyperinsulinemia.”

They also note the difference between ‘ordinary’ atherosclerosis and the lesions, vulnerable plaque, that actually cause heart attacks and ischemic strokes.

“Most importantly, the primary objective of this study was to address an entirely different question, namely, the effect of myeloid IR deficiency on advanced lesional macrophage apoptosis and plaque necrosis. Recall that most atherosclerotic lesions in humans do not cause acute coronary artery disease, because they undergo outward remodeling of the arterial wall, which preserves lumen patency, and do not undergo plaque rupture or erosion and thus do not trigger acute lumenal thrombosis. The small percentage of lesions that do cause acute vascular disease are distinguished by the presence of large areas of necrosis and thin fibrous caps, which promote plaque disruption, acute lumenal thrombosis, and tissue infarction. This concept is particularly important for the topic of this review, because advanced atherosclerotic lesions in diabetic subjects are characterized by large necrotic cores when compared with similarly sized lesions from nondiabetic individuals”

In their conclusion the authors state the role of insulin resistance over hyperglycemia:

“These studies have provided evidence that insulin resistance in macrophages and endothelial cells may play important roles in both atherogenesis and clinically relevant advanced plaque progression. Hyperglycemia, on the other hand, appears to primarily promote early stages of lesion formation…”

Insulin resistance inhibits nitric oxide synthase

An interesting paper published in the Italian journal Panminerva Medica further elucidates key mechanisms, including the damage by IR to nitric oxide regulation done by increasing asymmetric dimethylarginine, which inhibits nitric oxide synthase. The author includes this under the rubric ‘insulin resistance syndrome’.

“…the more insulin resistant an individual, the more insulin they must secrete in order to prevent the development of type 2 diabetes. However, the combination of insulin resistance and compensatory hyperinsulinemia increases the likelihood that an individual will be hypertensive, and have a dyslipidemia characterized by a high plasma triglyceride (TG) and low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) concentration….Several other clinical syndromes are now known to be associated with insulin resistance and compensatory hyperinsulinemia. For example, polycystic ovary syndrome appears to be secondary to insulin resistance and compensatory hyperinsulinemia. More recently, studies have shown that the prevalence of insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia is increased in patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and there are reports that certain forms of cancer are more likely to occur in insulin resistant/hyperinsulinemic persons. Finally, there is substantial evidence of an association between insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia, and sleep disordered breathing. Given the rapid increase in the number of clinical syndromes and abnormalities associated with insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia, it seems reasonable to suggest that the cluster of these changes related to the defect in insulin action be subsumed under the term of the insulin resistance syndrome.”

Specifically in regard to cardiovascular disease…

“…in addition to a high TG and a low HDL-C, the atherogenic lipoprotein profile in insulin resistant/hyperinsulinemic individuals also includes the appearance of smaller and denser low density lipoprotein particles, and the enhanced postprandial accumulation of remnant lipoproteins; changes identified as increasing risk of CVD. Elevated plasma concentrations of plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1) have been shown to be associated with increased CVD, and there is evidence of a significant relationship between PAI-1 and fibrinogen levels and both insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia. Evidence is also accumulating that sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity is increased in insulin resistant, hyperinsulinemic individuals, and, along with the salt sensitivity associated with insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia, increases the likelihood that these individuals will develop essential hypertension.”


“The first step in the process of atherogenesis is the binding of mononuclear cells to the endothelium, and mononuclear cells isolated from insulin resistant/hyperinsulinemic individuals adhere with greater avidity. This process is modulated by adhesion molecules produced by endothelial cells, and there is a significant relationship between degree of insulin resistance and the plasma concentration of the several of these adhesion molecules. Further evidence of the relationship between insulin resistance and endothelial dysfunction is the finding that asymmetric dimethylarginine, an endogenous inhibitor of the enzyme nitric oxide synthase, is increased in insulin resistant/hyperinsulinemic individuals. Finally, plasma concentrations of several inflammatory markers are elevated in insulin resistant subjects.”


A paper published in Diabetes Metabolism Research and Reviews draws this point further.

“In recent years, it has become clear that insulin resistance and endothelial dysfunction play a central role in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. Much evidence supports the presence of insulin resistance as the fundamental pathophysiologic disturbance responsible for the cluster of metabolic and cardiovascular disorders, known collectively as the metabolic syndrome. Endothelial dysfunction is an important component of the metabolic or insulin resistance syndrome and this is demonstrated by inadequate vasodilation and/or paradoxical vasoconstriction in coronary and peripheral arteries in response to stimuli that release nitric oxide (NO). Deficiency of endothelial-derived NO is believed to be the primary defect that links insulin resistance and endothelial dysfunction. NO deficiency results from decreased synthesis and/or release, in combination with exaggerated consumption in tissues by high levels of reactive oxygen (ROS) and nitrogen (RNS) species, which are produced by cellular disturbances in glucose and lipid metabolism.”

And a vicious cycle ensues…

“Endothelial dysfunction contributes to impaired insulin action, by altering the transcapillary passage of insulin to target tissues. Reduced expansion of the capillary network, with attenuation of microcirculatory blood flow to metabolically active tissues, contributes to the impairment of insulin-stimulated glucose and lipid metabolism. This establishes a reverberating negative feedback cycle in which progressive endothelial dysfunction and disturbances in glucose and lipid metabolism develop secondary to the insulin resistance. Vascular damage, which results from lipid deposition and oxidative stress to the vessel wall, triggers an inflammatory reaction, and the release of chemoattractants and cytokines worsens the insulin resistance and endothelial dysfunction.”

In their conclusion the authors state:

“…endothelial dysfunction and insulin resistance commonly occur together and can be detected early in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. Insulin resistance can be inferred by the presence of a cluster of metabolic and cardiovascular abnormalities known collectively as the metabolic syndrome or by direct measurement of impaired insulin-stimulated glucose and lipid metabolism . Endothelial dysfunction can be documented by the demonstration of inadequate vasodilation and/or paradoxical vasoconstriction in coronary and peripheral arteries. Lack of endothelial-derived NO may provide the link between insulin resistance and endothelial dysfunction.”

Plea to clinicians

Many resources are available for practitioners to apply a functional medicine model of objectively targeted treatment to resuscitate insulin receptor function and address lifestyle issues, especially diet, for the management of type 2 diabetes that minimizes the use of agents that lower glucose by increasing insulin, and therefore insulin resistance. It is my sincere wish that not only endocrinologists, but all clinicians, recall the mechanisms by which medications that promote insulin resistance increase cardiovascular disease, and act accordingly to protect their patients.

Insulin resistance is a huge topic, and there are numerous posts here pertaining to IR an conditions as diverse as Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer that can be viewed by using the search box. They include the earlier post on the correlation of IR with blood vessel damage leading to heart attack and stroke.