The first thing that probably comes to your mind when you hear the word insulin is how it relates to diabetes. That might be all that you know about it.
You might be wondering, what does insulin do? In short, insulin is an important hormone which allows our bodies to use sugar (glucose, specifically). There’s a lot more to insulin than that, though.
So here are 5 things you should know about insulin, what it does, and how it relates to your body’s health (and potential body health disorders) as a whole.
1. Insulin is Made by Your Pancreas and Works with Glucose
Insulin is a hormone found in your body that is made in your pancreas, an organ tucked behind your stomach.
Insulin has an incredibly important relationship with glucose in allowing your body to function. Your body needs glucose for energy, but your cells can’t absorb the sugar on their own – that’s where insulin comes in. Insulin is what allows your body to use glucose for energy or store it for later use. Glucose is a type of sugar found in carbohydrates, and its presence in your body is directly related to the food you eat.
Basically, the cycle works like this: you eat something and then the digestive tract breaks down the carbohydrates and turns them into glucose. The glucose is absorbed by your bloodstream through the lining in your small intestine – once glucose is in your bloodstream, insulin tells the cells all throughout your body to absorb the sugar and use it for energy so you can continue to move, breathe, think, and be a functioning human being.
Insulin also helps balance your blood sugar levels in general. If there’s too much glucose in your bloodstream (more than you need at the time), insulin tells your body to store the excess insulin in your liver as glycogen.
This stored glucose isn’t released back into your bloodstream until your blood sugar levels decrease, like when you’re between meals or when you’re physically exerting yourself and need an extra boost of energy to keep on keepin’ on. When it’s time to raise your blood sugar levels, another hormone that works in tandem with insulin called glucagon takes over and turns your stored glycogen back into glucose for your body to use.
In theory, the higher your blood sugar levels are, the more insulin your pancreas should be secreting.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes stem from problems in insulin production or insulin resistance, and when your blood sugar is too high or too low, you can suffer from hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia.
2. Hyperglycemia and Hypoglycemia: Problems in Blood Sugar Levels
Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, happens when you have too little insulin or when your body fails to use insulin properly.
It can be caused by Type 1 diabetes if you haven’t given yourself insulin or haven’t given yourself enough insulin, by Type 2 diabetes if your body is not effectively using its insulin, by eating more than you planned or exercising less than you planned, or from stress (be it from illness, family conflicts, school, or dating problems).
The symptoms of hyperglycemia include high blood glucose, high levels of sugar in your urine, frequent urination, and increased thirst.
To lower your blood glucose, you can watch your diet and exercise, or in more severe cases (diabetes), inject insulin or take certain medications.
Hyperglycemia, when left untreated, advances to ketoacidosis (diabetic coma), which is incredibly serious and can be fatal.
Hypoglycemia, on the other hand, happens when you have low blood sugar.
Also called insulin reaction or insulin shock, symptoms of hypoglycemia usually happen quickly and differ from person to person.
Some symptoms include feeling shaky, being nervous or anxious, being sweaty, chilly or clammy, irritability or impatience, confusion, having a fast heartbeat, feeling lightheaded or dizzy, hunger, nausea, going pale, feeling sleepy, weak, or low-energy, blurry or impaired vision, tingling or numbness in the lips, tongue, or cheeks, headaches, coordination problems or clumsiness, nightmares, or seizures.
To know for sure, you need to check your blood sugar levels.
To treat, you use the 15-15 Rule: have 15 grams of carbohydrate to raise your blood glucose and check again after 15 minutes. If it’s still below 70 mg/dL, have another 15-gram serving. Some suggestions are glucose tablets, gel tubes, 4 ounces (1/2 a cup) of juice or regular soda, a tablespoon of sugar, honey, or corn syrup, 8 ounces of non-fat or 1% milk, hard candies, jelly beans, or gumdrops. Then eat a meal or snack once your blood glucose hits at least 70 mg/dL so it doesn’t lower again.
People with diabetes need to constantly monitor their blood sugar levels to prevent or do what they have to in order to correct their hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia (this is where those finger-pricking devices come into play – they check blood sugar levels).
3. Type 1 Diabetes is Caused by Problems in Insulin Production
So, what does insulin do? Not much if you have Type 1 diabetes, because your pancreas is failing to produce any.
Previously known as juvenile diabetes because of how patients typically have the disease their whole lives starting from childhood, Type 1 diabetes is the minority type of diabetes with less than 5% of all diabetics.
In Type 1 diabetes, the body’s pancreas doesn’t produce insulin, which results in an obvious problem concerning blood glucose levels throughout patients’ lives.
Type 1 diabetes requires lifelong blood glucose monitoring, nutrition, exercise, and multiple daily insulin injections to manage.
4. Type 2 Diabetes is Caused by Problems in Insulin Resistance
Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes.
In Type 2 diabetes, your body doesn’t use insulin properly – this is called insulin resistance. At first, your pancreas will produce extra insulin to make up for it, but over time your pancreas can’t keep up the insulin production to keep your blood glucose levels normal.
When glucose builds up in the blood instead of going to the cells as it should, the immediate problem is that your cells may be starved for energy. Over time, high blood glucose levels may even hurt your eyes, kidneys, nerves, or heart.
To treat Type 2 diabetes, some diabetics are just able to watch their diet and stay active, but others will need oral medications or insulin to keep their blood glucose levels in the target range.
Unfortunately, Type 2 usually gets worse over time – even if you don’t need medication at first, you probably will eventually.
5. Watch Out for Prediabetes
Prediabetes is something of a warning sign.
It’s diagnosed when the glucose levels in your blood are higher than normal but they're not high enough for you to be diagnosed with full-blown diabetes.
Prediabetes usually occurs in people who already have a bit of an insulin resistance problem or whose beta cells in the pancreas aren’t making enough insulin to keep blood glucose in the normal range it should be in. Without the right amount of insulin, extra glucose floats around in your bloodstream instead of entering your cells as it should. Over time, this can result in you developing prediabetes.
Certain genetic and lifestyle risk factors can make you more likely to develop insulin resistance or prediabetes, and thus full-blown Type 2 diabetes.
These include being overweight or obese, over the age of 45, having a parent, brother or sister with diabetes, being physically inactive, or being of African American, Alaska Native, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander descent.
More risk factors and contributors to prediabetes are a history of gestational diabetes, a history of heart disease or stroke, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, polycystic ovary syndrome, certain medications (like glucocorticoids, some antipsychotics, and some HIV meds), hormonal disorders (like Cushing’s syndrome and acromegaly), and some sleep problems (especially sleep apnea).
Through medication, healthier eating habits, and exercise, it’s possible to delay the onset of Type 2 diabetes or even reverse insulin resistance.
What Does Insulin Do? Now You Know
Hopefully, you now have a greater understanding of insulin, what it does, and how it functions (or doesn’t function, in the case of diabetes) in our bodies.
Your pancreas, liver, insulin, glucose, and your food intake all have a very close relationship with one another – each affects all of the others. Now you know.