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How Insulin is Used to Treat Diabetes

What Is Insulin?

You’ve probably heard the term insulin alongside diabetes or sugar. It’s a hot topic because it's the most popular medication used to treat diabetes. Since 1980, the number of people with diabetes has more than tripled. Over 300 million more people are diagnosed with diabetes now compared to 40 years ago. So, what is insulin and how is it related to diabetes?

Insulin: An Explanation

It is a hormone that functions to transfer glucose, or sugar, into the body’s cells from the blood. This allows your cells to create the energy they require to function properly. Usually, with high blood sugar levels, the body produces more insulin. This balances everything out and prevents your blood sugar levels from becoming dangerously high.

However, the body can become insulin resistant or it may not produce enough. This is when diabetes is diagnosed. Luckily, technology has caught up. Injections of this hormone allow for proper blood sugar balance, even in those with diabetes. But let’s take a closer look at the hormone. Where did it all begin?

The History of Insulin

Before, there was not much that doctors could do for diabetic patients. Usually, those with diabetes were put on very strict diets, which sometimes helped and sometimes did not.

In 1889, German researchers, Oskar Minkowski and Joseph von Mering, discovered that the removal of the pancreas from dogs led to their untimely death due to diabetic complications. This is how we know that insulin is produced in the pancreas. In the early 1900s, researchers performed further studies and observations using dogs with diabetes. Using the hormone removed from the pancreas, researchers were able to keep a severely diabetic dog alive for three months.

In 1922, the first injection was administered to a 14 year old boy in Toronto. The boy’s blood sugar levels significantly dropped. By 1936, manufacturers introduced slow acting insulin to the market. Since then, it has helped millions of diabetic individuals manage their condition.

How It Works

In a healthy body, the hormone is produced by the pancreas. When your blood sugar rises, such as after eating a meal, your pancreas releases insulin. This hormone then signals to your body’s cells to take in glucose (sugar). This actively lowers your blood sugar level, rebalancing your body’s levels. It also gives your body’s cells enough energy to function properly.

Without insulin, the sugar continues to circulate through your blood, which can become life-threatening.

In individuals with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas fails to produce any or enough of the hormone. In contrast, type 2 diabetes involves insulin resistance. This means that although the individual is able to produce the hormone, their body’s cells do not use it as they should. Individuals with type 2 diabetes often require other medications to help the body use the hormone. Occasionally, they may be prescribed insulin as well. On the other hand, individuals with type 1 diabetes use injections for treatment. In turn, this allows the body’s cells to use sugar for energy and allows for proper pancreas function.

Different Distribution Types

Depending on the type of insulin prescribed, you may take the hormone at different times. Usually, you should eat within 15 to 30 minutes of an insulin injection. What types of insulin are there? The different types include:

  • Rapid acting. This type of insulin works within only minutes of taking it. It usually lasts for about two hours.
  • Regular or short acting. This type works after 30 minutes. It lasts about three to six hours.
  • Intermediate acting. This one takes a bit longer. It usually starts working within two to four hours, lasting up to almost 20 hours.
  • Long acting. This type of insulin lasts the whole day.

Often, it depends on what your doctor prescribes as to how often you need to take the hormone. You may need multiple doses or just one per day.

How to Use Insulin

The hormone frequently comes as a syringe and needle, a pre-filled pen, or as a cartridge system. It’s also recommended to administer the shot or needle into your abdomen. If this is not possible, the thighs, buttocks, or arms are the next best spots. Generally, you want to inject insulin in the same area. However, you also want to mix up the specific spot where you inject it. This prevents repeated trauma in the same spot and reduces your risk of scar tissue forming. While injections are the most common, there are also inhaled types of insulin and pumps. Usually, your doctor will determine what type is best for you.

If you suspect you may have diabetes, make sure you consult with your doctor. Common signs and symptoms include increased thirst, frequent urination, severe hunger, weight loss, presence of ketones in the urine, fatigue and irritability. Once diagnosed, ensure you follow your doctor’s exact instructions on dosage and administration.

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