We often hear about the importance of proper blood sugar control to our overall health and wellness. But if you’re a little fuzzy on exactly what blood sugar control is, and which organ releases insulin in the body, then this article is for you.
The human body is an incredible and complex system that works in countless ways every moment of the day to keep us in balance. Each tissue, organ, and chemical plays a critical role. But when even one small element isn’t functioning properly, the ramifications can be far-reaching and disastrous.
Such is the case with insulin—a hormone commonly associated with the disease known as Diabetes.
Below, we’ll provide a concise overview of insulin and its function in the body, where and how it is produced, and why it is crucial to regulating blood sugar levels and your overall health.
For more information about how insulin levels may be impacting your personal health, speak directly with your doctor or healthcare provider.
What Is Insulin?
Insulin is an essential human body hormone produced in the pancreas. Though it is responsible for several metabolic effects, its two primary and related functions are:
- To control blood glucose levels in the bloodstream
- To allow glucose to enter cells and be metabolized as energy
In case you’ve become a little rusty on your body chemistry since high school biology, let’s lay it out in simple and straightforward terms:
- When you consume carbohydrates, they are broken down in your small intestine and absorbed into your bloodstream as glucose, raising your blood sugar levels.
- Glucose is the main energy source used to power your body’s cells and is delivered to cells throughout your body by your blood. Without being powered by glucose, your cells cannot function properly.
- Any extra glucose that cannot be immediately metabolized is stored as fat to provide energy to the body at a future time when glucose levels are low.
- Insulin is the hormone that allows glucose to enter cells. Without insulin, glucose cannot enter body cells and remains in the bloodstream (which can cause high blood sugar to seriously impact your health).
- Insulin is produced in the pancreas in response to food (especially carbohydrates). It is one of the hormones responsible for regulating blood sugar levels and the primary one responsible for lowering them.
To better understand how insulin is produced and released, let’s take a closer look at the organ known as the pancreas:
Located across the back of the abdomen, just behind the stomach, the pancreas is about 6 inches long and tubular in shape.
The pancreas’s two primary functions are:
- To produce pancreatic juice, a fluid consisting of enzymes and alkaline fluid that is essential to the breakdown and digestion of nutrients in the body (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates). This is known as the pancreas’s exocrine function (see more below).
- To produce insulin and other hormones responsible for blood sugar regulation. This is known as the pancreas’s endocrine function (see more below).
The majority of tissue in the pancreas is responsible for producing digestive enzymes. Tissues with an endocrine role exist as small clusters of cells known as pancreatic islets or the islets of Langerhans. They secrete different types of hormones, including insulin (produced by beta cells) and glucagon (produced by alpha cells).
Blood sugar control is maintained by both insulin and glucagon. Let’s take a more detailed look at how.
How Is Insulin Controlled in the Body?
The control of insulin in the body doesn’t exist in isolation. Rather, it is a complex process that relies on extensive communication between various organs, hormones, and systems.
As outlined above, the release of insulin is triggered when carbohydrates are broken down during digestion and enter the bloodstream as glucose. Insulin balances food intake and the body’s metabolic needs by responding to higher-than-normal sugar in the bloodstream and effectively helping the body to either use or store glucose and return blood sugar levels to normal.
Insulin production and release are impacted by a number of factors but work most closely with another hormone known as glucagon. Glucagon is also produced in the pancreas, but instead of responding to high blood sugar and lowering glucose levels, it does the opposite. Glucagon actually responds to low blood sugar levels and raises blood sugar levels. It does this by triggering the liver to convert and release glycogen (stored sugar) while also preventing the intake and storage of any more glucose from the blood.
In a healthy person, insulin and glucagon maintain an ideal balance in the body that is tightly controlled to keep blood sugar levels within an optimal range in the bloodstream.
Digestion and blood sugar control are closely intertwined, and the pancreas is directly involved in both. As promised, we’ll provide a more in-depth look below at this amazing organ’s two primary functions:
The Exocrine Function of the Pancreas
The exocrine function of the pancreas is to chemically break down food so that absorption of nutrients can occur through the wall of the small intestine and into the bloodstream. It does this by secreting an enzyme-rich fluid known as pancreatic juice directly into the duodenum (the first section of the small intestine).
Pancreatic juice is composed of enzymes capable of breaking down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates and also contains bicarbonate elements, which help the fluid neutralize harsh stomach acids and protect the gut. The pancreas’s release of pancreatic juice is closely coordinated with the release of bile from the gallbladder, which also contributes to the digestive process.
Pancreatitis is a serious condition that can result from the decreased production of enzymes in the pancreas and resulting reduction in the absorption of nutrients. It is often associated with chronic excessive alcohol consumption and can be life-threatening.
The Endocrine Function of the Pancreas
The endocrine function of the pancreas involves the release of hormones that impact other organs and body processes. Hormones are defined as chemical messengers that coordinate functions within the body. The primary hormones released by the pancreas are insulin and glucagon, which are responsible for the control of blood sugar levels (see above).
The Pancreas and Diabetes
Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when blood sugar is not properly controlled within the body and blood glucose levels are chronically too high. It can be deadly if not properly managed and directly involves the release of insulin from the pancreas.
The two most common types of Diabetes are Type 1 Diabetes and Type 2 Diabetes, both of which may be managed with injectable insulin. Type 2 Diabetes may also be managed with other types of medications:
Type 1 Diabetes – In Type 1 Diabetes, natural insulin production in the pancreas is either very low or completely non-existent. Pancreatic beta cells are destroyed by an autoimmune reaction and regular insulin injections are necessary for blood sugar regulation. Type 1 Diabetes may be genetically inherited.
Type 2 Diabetes – In Type 2 Diabetes, body cells don’t respond normally to insulin—known as insulin resistance. In turn, this causes the pancreas to work overtime, producing extra insulin. When the pancreas can no longer keep up with the body’s demand for insulin, blood sugar levels rise. Type 2 Diabetes is associated with obesity and many comorbidities, including hypertension, heart disease, high cholesterol, and more.
What Happens if You Have Too Much Insulin
In people with Diabetes, too much insulin in the body may be the result of expending more energy or consuming less food than anticipated. It can lead to low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), which can be a serious and even life-threatening condition if not treated appropriately.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
- Mild – shakiness, sweating, headache, irritability, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, dizziness
- Severe – confusion, slurred speech, loss of coordination, blurred vision, loss of consciousness, seizures
Mild low blood sugar can usually be effectively treated by orally consuming sugar and monitoring blood sugar levels until they have returned to normal. Severe hypoglycemia may require glucagon injection or emergency medical treatment. If you suspect that you or someone you know is experiencing hypoglycemia, check your blood sugar levels and seek treatment immediately.
See also: Buying Insulin From Canada: What You Need to Know
What Happens When You Don’t Have Enough Insulin
Insufficient insulin in the body can lead to Diabetes. Symptoms of Diabetes include:
- Frequent urination
- Unexplained weight loss
- Increased hunger and thirst
- Blurred vision
- Tingling in hands or feet
If you are experiencing symptoms of Diabetes, contact your doctor as soon as possible to receive a definitive diagnosis and begin treatment.
To conclude, insulin is produced and released by the pancreas, a complex and vital organ responsible for breaking down food during digestion and regulating blood sugar levels in the body. When not enough insulin is produced by the pancreas or insulin resistance causes cells not to take in glucose from the blood as expected, Diabetes can result and must be treated with insulin injections or other medications.
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