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Effects of insulin resistance on endothelial function: possible mechanisms and clinical implications


Dimitris Tousoulis, Cardiology Unit, Hippokration Hospital, Athens University Medical School, Athens, Greece.


Insulin resistance (IR) is defined as a reduced responsiveness of peripheral tissues to the effects of the hormone, referring to abated ability of insulin in stimulating glucose uptake in peripheral tissues and in inhibiting hepatic glucose output. Insulin has both a vasodilatory effect, which is largely endothelium dependent through the release of nitric oxide, and a vasoconstrictory effect through the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and the release of endothelin-1. IR and endothelial dysfunction (ED) are not only linked by common pathogenetic mechanisms, involving deranged insulin signalling pathways, but also by other, indirect to the hormone’s actions, mechanisms. Different treatment modalities have been proposed to affect positively both the metabolic effects of insulin and ED. Weight loss has been shown to improve sensitivity to insulin as a result of either altered diet or exercise. Exercise has favourable effects on endothelial function in normal states and in states of disease, in men and women, and throughout the age spectrum and, hence, in IR states. Metformin improves sensitivity to insulin and most likely affects positively ED. Studies have shown that inhibitors of the renin–angiotensin system alter IR favourably, while Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and Angiotensin receptor type II (ATII) inhibitors improve ED. Ongoing studies are expected to shed more light on the issue of whether treatment with the thiazolidinediones results in improvement of endothelial function, along with the accepted function of improving insulin sensitivity. Finally, improved endothelial function by such treatments is not in itself proof of reduced risk for atherosclerosis; this remains to be directly tested in clinical trials.