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Insulin and Diabetes


Updated June 18, 2014

Insulin and Diabetes
Copyright 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc.

The Pancreas and Insulin Production:

The pancreas is a very quiet little organ that sits behind the stomach and produces digestive enzymes and a couple of hormones called insulin and glucagon. Most people never think about their pancreas. It just does it's thing, pumping insulin into the blood when glucose is too high and glucagon when the glucose is too low.

Digestion and Energy:

When we take in food, our bodies break it down into materials that we need for our bodies to function. One of those materials is sugar in the form of glucose. Our cells use glucose for energy and our brains especially run on glucose. To get the glucose into the cells, the sugar travels into the bloodstream and triggers the pancreas to produce insulin. Insulin lets the sugar pass from the blood into the cells. When sugar is converted to energy, it's either used or stored until we need it.

The Rise and Fall of Blood Sugar:

Blood sugar is lower before a meal and then rises once we have eaten. Then, approximately 2 hours after the meal it returns to normal. Blood sugar is measured in milliliters per deciliter of blood. So the normal range for blood sugar in the person without diabetes usually falls between 70 and 110 milliters per deciliter or ml/dl.

A person is diagnosed with diabetes when their pancreas either doesn't produce any insulin at all or the insulin they do produce is ineffective.

Type 1 Diabetes:

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas is attacked by the immune system. The insulin producing cells, also known as beta cells, are permanently destroyed. The pancreas no longer produces insulin. 10% of people diagnosed with diabetes have Type 1 and the majority of them are children or young adults when it strikes. There seems to be a genetic link to Type 1 diabetes, even though scientists believe that a viral infection may be the culprit.

The signs and symptoms of Type 1 happen swiftly.

Energy Crisis:

The insulin production drops off suddenly when the beta cells are destroyed and the person is very quickly in crisis. When there isn't any insulin, the sugar in the blood just keeps circulating and building. The cells don't get any fuel and the body tries to get rid of the excess sugar. It tries to dilute it by pulling water out of body. This causes excessive thirst and urination.

Diabetic Ketoacidosis:

The body becomes fatigued because the cells aren't getting the glucose they need for energy. The person may suffer a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis which means that the body starts to break down fats to make energy. This produces ketones which makes the blood increasingly acidic.This can cause a person to go into a diabetic coma and possibly even die. People with Type 1 diabetes must always take insulin for the rest of their lives in order to live with the disease.

Type 2 Diabetes:

Type 2 diabetes is different than Type 1. The pancreas still makes insulin, but the body develops resistance to insulin, so the cells don't respond to it, and they are unable to take up the sugar that is in the blood. Type 2 used to be almost exclusively an older person's disease, but with the rise in childhood obesity and obesity in general in our country, there are cases of Type 2 in children and young adults as well.

The Skinny on Type 2:

Obesity is the number one risk factor for developing Type 2 diabetes because fat cells do not absorb insulin as well as muscle cells do. Some scientists feel that because the pancreas has to work harder to pump increased levels of insulin into the blood to compensate for resistance, that the pancreas eventually wears itself out and can no longer keep up with the demand. Oral medications, combined with a low fat, high fiber diet and exercise is usually enough to control the symptoms of Type 2.

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