How Does Insulin Work?

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How Does Insulin Work?

Do you or a family member or friend have diabetes? Well it happens to be a family trait for me. I have it and at first the only thing I understood was that I need to take my medicine, as my HMO experience was not too informative. Here is some information that we hope will be helpful.

Insulin History

Paul Langerhans was a mid-19th century German scientist who discovered cell patches in tissues of the pancreas. In 1893, a French histologist (expert on microscopic structures of animal or plant tissues) named G.E. Languesse named the cells that Langerhans described "ilots de Langerhans," or islets of Langerhans, a name that still stands today.

They look like small islands, have a rich blood supply and contain several types of cells including alpha cells and beta cells. Alpha cells secrete glucagon, and beta cells secrete insulin. These two hormones regulate blood glucose levels.

Insulin normally keeps blood glucose levels from becoming too high, and prevents the development of diabetes. Glucagon is secreted when blood glucose levels are low. It stimulates the liver and muscles to break down glycogen that was created when the insulin caused blood glucose to be stored as glycogen in the liver. In non-diabetics, insulin and glycogen regulate blood glucose levels well, not allowing them to get too high or too low.

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How does Insulin work to Keep Blood Glucose Levels under Control?

When working optimally, insulin has the following effects:

(1) Increases glycogenesis, or the conversion of blood glucose to stored energy.

(2) Increases cell intake of glucose which draws glucose from the blood.

(3) Causes blood glucose to be consumed for energy rather than stored fats.

(4) Increases conversion of blood glucose to fats.

(5) Prevents the conversion of glycogen to free circulating glucose.

How does Insulin Work in Liver and Muscle Cells?

The human body needs steady levels of glucose throughout the day. Glucose comes from food. Since humans don't spend all day "grazing" to keep glucose levels steady, insulin steps in to regulate glucose. When there is a lot of glucose in the blood, insulin stimulates cells in the liver and muscles to change glucose into glycogen. Glycogen is stored energy for later use.

How does Insulin Work in Fat Cells and Kidney Cells?

Insulin removes food by-products from the body by stimulating fat cells to create fats from fatty acids and kidney cells to turn amino acids into proteins. Insulin also prevents the kidneys from creating glucose from partly-metabolized materials, because this process is hard on the kidneys and can result in long term damage.

What if the Insulin and Glycogen System Malfunctions?

Insulin history is well documented nowadays because doctors have much more experience dealing with diabetes, and unfortunately, because in many western nations, particularly the U.S., diabetes has become very common. In a healthy person with good diet and exercise habits, insulin works fine and they don't experience levels of blood glucose that are too high or too low. However, sometimes the body develops problems having to do with insulin.

In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas stops producing insulin in a process that is thought to be autoimmune - meaning the body attacks its own beta cells and renders them useless. People who have Type 1 diabetes can become very sick, and will die if they don't inject insulin to regulate their blood glucose.

Type 2 diabetes tends to develop over time. With this type of diabetes, the body develops resistance to the insulin the pancreas makes. Though the pancreas may make adequate amounts of insulin, the body does not respond well to it and so levels of blood glucose increase with time.

This type of diabetes can usually be controlled through dietary habits, exercise, and certain medications. Occasionally someone with type 2 diabetes will have to use insulin injections if the other measures don't help. While type 2 diabetes does not kill quickly the way uncontrolled type 1 diabetes can, it can shorten lifespan by causing organ damage and increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

When diabetes is well controlled, however, people with it can lead normal, healthy lives with few restrictions other than dietary ones.

What are the Long Term Effects of Diabetes?

When high blood glucose levels persist, it can cause damage to internal organs. For example, uncontrolled blood sugar can lead to coronary blockage and can raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Partially blocked blood vessels can cause discomfort - such as chronically cold feet - and the resulting poor circulation can cause cuts or infections to take too long to heal.

Chronic high blood glucose causes blood vessels in the kidney to become "leaky," which causes protein to be excreted. Sometimes some of the blood vessels collapse, straining the ones that remain. Kidney failure can result if the problem is not addressed. Weakened blood vessels in the eye can also result from uncontrolled diabetes and lead to vision failure.


Answering the question How does insulin work? is quite complicated. Insulin is vital to the healthy function of almost all parts of the body. When it works properly, insulin is nothing short of a miraculous substance, but when it does not work properly, the entire body can suffer.