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  • Vascular insulin resistance is a feature of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
  • Lifestyle changes can change how blood vessels respond to insulin.
  • But the effectiveness of these changes differ for women and men.

Short-term lifestyle changes such as moving less and drinking more sugary beverages can disrupt how the blood vessels respond to insulin, with men and women reacting differently, a new study found.

Insulin helps blood glucose (sugar) move into the cells, where it can be used for energy. This hormone also causes blood vessels to widen, which increases the flow of blood — along with insulin and glucose — to the tissues.

Insulin resistance in the blood vessels impairs this process, leading to less glucose being moved into the cells of the affected tissues.

This vascular insulin resistance, as it’s called, is a feature of obesity and type 2 diabetes. It is also thought to occur before whole-body insulin resistance develops.

In a study published in the November issue of the journal Endocrinology, researchers examined the effect that lifestyle changes known to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes had on the blood vessels of 36 young and healthy men and women.

They asked participants to reduce their physical activity for 10 days, cutting their step count from 10,000 to 5,000 steps per day. Participants also increased their intake of sugar-sweetened beverages to six cans of soda a day.

After 10 days, male participants had a reduced flow of blood in the leg in response to an infusion of insulin, compared to their response at the start of the study.

Men also had drop in the hormone adropin, which plays a role in regulating insulin sensitivity, body weight and functioning of the cardiovascular system.

In contrast, these changes did not occur in female participants.

“These findings underscore a sex-related difference in the development of vascular insulin resistance induced by adopting a lifestyle high in sugar and low on exercise,” study author Dr. Camila Manrique-Acevedo, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Missouri, said in a statement.

“To our knowledge, this is the first evidence in humans that vascular insulin resistance can be provoked by short-term adverse lifestyle changes,” she added, “and it’s the first documentation of sex-related differences in the development of vascular insulin resistance in association with changes in adropin levels.”

Earlier research suggests that some young women may be more protected than men against dysfunction of the blood vessels due to prolonged sitting.

In addition, animal studies have found that insulin resistance develops in the blood vessels before it does in the muscles, liver or adipose (fat) tissue. So vascular insulin resistance may provide an early indicator of whole-body insulin resistance.

Manrique-Acevedo said in a statement that she would like to further study the sex-related differences vascular insulin resistance, as well as look at how long it takes for these vascular and metabolic changes to be reversed once people stop being sedentary and drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.

This study focused on the short-term effects that a lack of physical activity and an increased intake of added sugars can have on the blood vessels.

Longer term, diabetes is known to negatively affect the blood vessels and heart in a number of ways. As a result, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in people with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Dr. Qin Yang, an endocrinologist and medical director of the UCI Health Diabetes Center in Irvine, California, said type 2 diabetes can damage both large and small blood vessels.

“The large blood vessel damage may cause stroke and heart attack,” he said. In addition, “small blood vessel damage in the eyes, kidneys and around nerves may cause retinopathy [damage to the blood vessels of the retina], protein leakage from the kidney and neuropathy [damage to the nerves].”

Blood vessel damage can be worse in people with diabetes whose blood glucose is not well-controlled.

“Studies have unequivocally shown that managing blood glucose levels is critically important for preventing small blood vessel diseases such as diabetic eye retinopathy,” said Yin.

Although managing blood glucose levels can help people with diabetes lower their risk of cardiovascular disease, even when their blood glucose levels are well-controlled, people with diabetes have an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

This is because they may have other factors that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, being overweight or obese, lack of physical activity or smoking.

To lower their risk, people with diabetes should work with their health care provider to come up with a plan to address all of these, through lifestyle changes and/or medications.

“The most effective approach for the prevention of stroke and heart attack appears to be multifactorial risk factor reduction — controlling [blood glucose levels], high blood pressure and high cholesterol, as well as stopping smoking,” said Yang.