Author: Ariel Warren, RDN, LD, CDCES
Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels and proper insulin function are crucial for cardiovascular health. The combination of high LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol with either insulin resistance or insulin sensitivity can lead to different outcomes in terms of heart disease risk. The purpose of this article is to explore the research covering the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease associated with insulin sensitivity.
When high LDL cholesterol levels are combined with insulin resistance, it creates an unfavorable metabolic environment that significantly increases the risk of heart disease. Insulin resistance occurs when the body’s cells become less responsive to the effects of insulin, resulting in elevated blood sugar levels. Below details the reasoning why the combination of high LDL cholesterol and insulin resistance impacts heart health:
- Lipid Metabolism: Insulin resistance disrupts lipid metabolism and leads to abnormal lipid profiles. It increases the production of very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) particles in the liver, which contributes to elevated levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. This dysregulation in lipid metabolism promotes the formation of atherosclerotic plaques in the arteries, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Inflammation: Insulin resistance is associated with chronic low-grade inflammation in the body. This persistent inflammation contributes to the development and progression of atherosclerosis, a condition characterized by the buildup of plaque in the arteries. The combination of high LDL cholesterol and inflammation further promotes the formation of atherosclerotic plaques, which narrows the arteries and impedes blood flow to the heart.
- Oxidative Stress: Insulin resistance increases oxidative stress, which refers to an imbalance between the production of harmful free radicals and the body’s ability to counteract their effects. Oxidative stress damages the inner lining of blood vessels, promoting the deposition of LDL cholesterol and accelerating the formation of atherosclerotic plaques.
While these findings are not new news, in contrast, when high LDL cholesterol levels are combined with insulin sensitivity, there is evidence suggesting a decreased risk of heart disease compared to the insulin resistance scenario.
Let’s let that sink in. Meaning, if someone has elevated LDL levels, it does not pose the same risk of cardiovascular disease if this person is insulin sensitive. Due to the insulin sensitivity, the risk of cardiovascular disease is decreased.
Insulin sensitivity refers to the body’s ability to respond effectively to the actions of insulin. Below explains how the combination of high LDL cholesterol and insulin sensitivity can benefit heart health:
- Efficient Lipid Metabolism: Insulin sensitivity promotes efficient lipid metabolism, regulating LDL cholesterol levels. Insulin signals the liver to decrease the production of VLDL particles, resulting in lower levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. This reduction in lipid levels helps mitigate the formation of atherosclerotic plaques and lowers the risk of heart disease.
- Reduced Inflammation: Insulin sensitivity is associated with reduced levels of chronic inflammation. Lower inflammation levels decrease the development and progression of atherosclerosis, as inflammation plays a crucial role in plaque formation. This contributes to healthier arteries and a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Improved Antioxidant Defenses: Insulin sensitivity enhances the body’s antioxidant defenses, reducing oxidative stress. The improved balance between free radicals and antioxidants helps protect blood vessels from oxidative damage, thereby reducing the deposition of LDL cholesterol and the formation of atherosclerotic plaques.
Numerous studies have investigated the relationship between insulin sensitivity and the risk of heart disease, supporting the notion of decreased cardiovascular risk in individuals with insulin sensitivity. Below are some key findings from the research:
- A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that individuals with a favorable lipid profile (low LDL cholesterol and high HDL cholesterol) and high insulin sensitivity had a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular events compared to those with an unfavorable lipid profile and low insulin sensitivity.
- Another study published in Diabetes Care found that insulin sensitivity was inversely associated with carotid intima-media thickness (a marker of atherosclerosis) in individuals with normal glucose tolerance. Greater insulin sensitivity was associated with reduced thickness, indicating a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
- The Insulin Resistance Atherosclerosis Study (IRAS) showed that insulin sensitivity was independently associated with a reduced risk of coronary artery calcification, a measure of atherosclerotic plaque burden in the coronary arteries.
Below are behavioral changes that you can do to improve your insulin sensitivity:
- Regular Physical Activity: Engage in regular aerobic exercises such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming. Physical activity helps increase insulin sensitivity by promoting glucose uptake by muscles, reducing insulin resistance, and improving overall metabolic health.
- Strength Training: Incorporate resistance training exercises into your routine. Building muscle mass through strength training enhances insulin sensitivity by increasing glucose utilization and improving insulin signaling.
- Balanced Diet: Adopt a balanced and nutritious eating plan. Focus on whole foods, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, quality proteins, and healthy fats. Avoid processed foods, sugary beverages, and excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates, which can contribute to insulin resistance.
- Portion Control: Practice portion control to maintain a healthy weight. Overeating can lead to excess weight gain, which is associated with insulin resistance. Pay attention to portion sizes and aim for a balanced calorie intake.
- Fiber-Rich Foods: Include fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts in your diet. Dietary fiber helps regulate blood sugar levels, improves insulin sensitivity, and promotes overall metabolic health.
- Limit Added Sugars: Minimize your consumption of added sugars, including sugary snacks, sodas, and sweetened beverages. High sugar intake can lead to insulin resistance and negatively impact insulin sensitivity.
- Healthy Fats: Choose sources of healthy fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. Healthy fats can also come from quality meats. These fats have been associated with improved insulin sensitivity and cardiovascular health.
- Adequate Sleep: Prioritize getting enough quality sleep. Lack of sleep and poor sleep quality can disrupt hormonal balance, increase insulin resistance, and negatively impact overall metabolic function.
- Stress Management: Practice stress reduction techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or engaging in hobbies and activities you enjoy. Chronic stress can contribute to insulin resistance, so finding healthy ways to manage stress is crucial.
- Weight Management: Maintain a healthy weight or work towards achieving a healthy weight if overweight or obese. Losing excess weight can significantly improve insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of developing insulin resistance.
It’s important to note that individual responses to lifestyle changes may vary! It’s always recommended to consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian for personalized guidance and support in improving insulin sensitivity.
Maintaining optimal insulin sensitivity may have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system by promoting healthy lipid metabolism, reducing inflammation, and improving antioxidant defenses.
Conclusion: When high LDL cholesterol levels are combined with insulin resistance, it significantly increases the risk of heart disease. Insulin resistance disrupts lipid metabolism, promotes inflammation, and enhances oxidative stress, all of which contribute to the development of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
In contrast, high LDL cholesterol combined with insulin sensitivity appears to have a lower risk of heart disease. Insulin sensitivity promotes efficient lipid metabolism, reduces inflammation, and improves antioxidant defenses, creating a more favorable cardiovascular environment.
Understanding the role of insulin sensitivity and its impact on LDL cholesterol and heart disease risk is crucial for managing cardiovascular health. Lifestyle modifications such as regular physical activity, a balanced diet, and weight management can contribute to improving insulin sensitivity and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Consulting with Registered Dietitian and following personalized recommendations is essential for individuals seeking to reduce their risk of heart disease.
Remember, this article provides a general overview and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have specific concerns about your cardiovascular health, please consult with a healthcare provider.
Work with Ariel
Schedule an appointment with Registered Dietitian and Diabetes Educator, Ariel Warren, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1995. She can help you develop a personalized plan to improve your blood sugar management and help you live your best life.