Diabetes Basics
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Dear Diabetes: What Is Insulin?

An explanation of insulin’s role in the body

Dear Diabetes: What is insulin and what role does it play in the body?

In order to understand diabetes, it is important to understand insulin and what it does. The human body naturally produces insulin, a type of chemical known as a hormone. Like other hormones, insulin carries a message within the body; its job is to signal to cells to take up sugar from the blood stream.

After we eat, the body’s digestive system breaks food down into its building blocks, including a type of sugar known as glucose, which enters the blood stream. Glucose acts as fuel for everything the body does, from thinking to moving and even breathing.

Insulin also travels in the blood. The pancreas produces insulin by special cells known as beta cells. When insulin encounters cells, it signals them to let glucose in through their membranes, and turn them into energy. As a result, blood glucose levels go down, and this causes the pancreas to produce less insulin.

Diabetes develops because of problems in this process. Type 1 diabetes results when the body’s immune system mistakenly destroys the beta cells. Because of this, the pancreas cannot produce insulin. Type 2 diabetes results when cells do not use insulin properly, a condition known as insulin resistance, and the beta cells in the pancreas over time lose the ability to produce enough insulin. As a result, glucose levels increase in the blood.

While insulin is a hormone the human body naturally produces, it can also be manufactured and designed to act in certain ways. Today there are several types of therapeutic insulins that a doctor may prescribe to meet the specific needs of a person living with diabetes. (Read more about managing blood glucose.)

© 2015 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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