Insulin 101: Everything You Need to Know About This Vital Hormone

May 13, 2022 6 min read

Whether you have diabetes or not, you’ve probably heard of insulin and its importance to your health. But how much do you really know about this hormone? Here’s everything you need to know about insulin, including its main function in the body, where it’s produced, how much insulin there should be in your body, and what happens when there isn’t enough of it—or too much of it.

What is Insulin?

Insulin is a hormone produced by beta cells in your pancreas. Its primary function is to regulate blood sugar levels. Insulin allows cells, primarily muscle and fat cells, to absorb glucose (sugar) from your bloodstream. Glucose is then stored as glycogen in these cells and used for energy when it’s needed. When you eat carbohydrates, particularly starchy carbs like bread or pasta, your body produces insulin to facilitate their storage as well.

How Does Insulin Work?

Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas. Its primary function is to shuttle sugar into cells where it can be converted into energy. Insulin essentially acts as an on/off switch for cells, telling them when they can—and cannot—utilize glucose. When you eat something high in carbohydrates, insulin levels rise. The presence of insulin causes your liver, muscles and fat tissue to absorb glucose and convert it into glycogen (which your body uses for quick energy). For example, if you consume 200 grams of carbohydrates over a 24-hour period, your body would use about 150 grams for energy and turn about 50 grams into glycogen that could be used later.

When and How Should You Take Insulin?

When your blood sugar reaches a dangerously high level, your pancreas releases insulin, a hormone that helps carry glucose out of your bloodstream and into your cells. But when you consume too many carbohydrates—particularly refined ones like those found in sugary beverages or white bread—your body produces more insulin than it needs. High levels of insulin are also produced by people who are overweight, which contributes to what's known as insulin resistance. That's why so many people with type 2 diabetes also have high cholesterol and triglycerides. Insulin resistance is not a sign that you can no longer benefit from insulin therapy; in fact, it often means you need extra support for more effective control.

How Should I Store My Insulin?

Check your insulin vial for any discoloration or deterioration. Don’t shake an insulin bottle before you draw up a dose because air bubbles can form if you stir it. To keep insulin from going bad, refrigerate it and avoid extreme heat and direct sunlight. Insulin that’s past its expiration date may not work as well, so make sure you don’t store your medicine in areas where it will be exposed to heat or light for long periods of time. Also, many types of insulin aren’t meant to stay in your fridge for more than 30 days after opening; consult with your pharmacist about when you should toss out excess medicines.

How Can You Prevent Low Blood Sugar Reactions?

Low blood sugar reactions, also known as hypoglycemia, are a common side effect of insulin therapy. Hypoglycemia occurs when there is not enough glucose in your blood to power your brain and body cells. While milder forms of hypoglycemia may be remedied with 15-20 grams of fast-acting carbohydrates (such as white bread or fruit juice), severe hypoglycemia can lead to seizures, coma, and even death if left untreated. Insulin users who have experienced a severe low blood sugar reaction should always carry at least 15 grams of carbohydrates on them at all times. Other ways to prevent low blood sugar include eating regular meals with small portions of complex carbs and limiting your intake of alcohol before bedtime.

What Are Symptoms of High Blood Sugar Reactions?

High blood sugar reactions are a very serious and potentially fatal complication of diabetes. According to Diabetes Health, a high blood sugar reaction (also known as hyperglycemia) is when blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not yet high enough for a diabetic coma or ketoacidosis. If you experience these symptoms, it is important that you immediately see your doctor. One common symptom of hyperglycemia is fatigue or weakness. Other possible signs include excessive thirst and hunger, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, increased urination and blurred vision.

Are There Any Complications Associated With Diabetes?

The good news is, people with diabetes can treat or prevent most of these complications by controlling their blood sugar levels. Take insulin, for example. Insulin isn’t just a medication you take when you have low blood sugar. It’s also something your body produces naturally when it digests carbohydrates in food. But, if your blood sugar rises above normal levels (such as after a meal), insulin production increases and clears glucose from your bloodstream so that it can be used as energy by cells around your body instead of building up and causing damage to organs like your kidneys or eyesight.

Are There Alternative Medications For Insulin?

Some people may not be candidates for injectable insulin. For example, if you’re a type 1 diabetic with low blood sugar and/or poor blood-sugar control, you may need an alternative medication, such as an inhaled insulin or an insulin pump. Some type 2 diabetics may also need alternative medications; however, these are typically only recommended in very specific cases. If you take insulin but aren’t seeing good results, talk to your doctor about switching to an alternative medication or adjusting your current treatment plan.

Alternative Medications For People With Type 2 Diabetes

Research has found that there are several types of medications that can be taken alongside insulin that can improve glucose control and help maintain healthy blood glucose levels. However, it’s important to note that these medications come with risks and side effects. For example, glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) agonists may cause nausea and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Biguanides such as metformin may increase urination, leading to dehydration. Sulfonylureas can lead to weight gain and hypoglycemia. Some people with type 2 diabetes need more than one medication for their condition; others will respond better with a combination therapy of oral medications. Discuss your options with your doctor or pharmacist before making any changes.

Costus Igneus For Diabetes

In one study, scientists were able to prevent Type 2 diabetes in mice using costus igneus, a medicinal plant. A daily oral dose of 40 milligrams per kilogram body weight prevented development of insulin resistance and thus averted full-blown Type 2 diabetes. The discovery raises hopes that a similar treatment could be useful for humans suffering from high blood sugar levels. Insulin is a critical hormone that helps cells extract sugar from our blood and turn it into fuel we can use. It’s produced by specialized beta cells in our pancreas. As people get older, their beta cells become less effective at producing insulin, which is what causes diabetes—but researchers think that may not be inevitable.

Managing Diabetes During Pregnancy

If you’re a pregnant woman with type 1 diabetes, your pregnancy will be different from those of other women. The goal of diabetes management during pregnancy is to keep both you and your baby safe by balancing insulin delivery with nutrition needs. In order to have a healthy pregnancy, it’s important for you and your healthcare provider to make sure that blood sugar levels are closely monitored throughout. A normal range for blood sugar in pregnancy is between 70-110 mg/dL. There are certain factors, like exercise and hormonal changes, that can affect blood sugar levels during pregnancy.

The Bottom Line

When you eat, your body takes that food and turns it into glucose, which it then uses for energy. When you eat a meal high in carbs, your pancreas releases insulin to help shuttle all of that blood sugar out of your bloodstream and into cells. Insulin is necessary for life—without it, we'd have no way of accessing our energy stores or of storing fat or protein. But when you have too much insulin circulating through your body (such as from eating lots of refined carbs), some may head toward your liver where it gets converted into fat. Over time, having high levels of insulin can contribute to obesity and other health problems like prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.


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