Reading up on blood sugar is about as fun as deciphering Ikea furniture instructions. Even as words like “insulin” and “glucagon” become part of your vocabulary, it can be difficult to know what they actually mean.
Unfortunately, you really need to understand all the lingo related to blood sugar if you’re going to properly manage those levels.
To start, let’s take a look at insulin and glucagon.
Both are extremely important when it comes to managing blood sugar and keeping your body in grade-A shape (especially when you’re dealing with a condition like type 1 or type 2 diabetes). Here’s the scoop.
The big thing to remember about insulin and glucagon is that they work together. These two hormones use the beauty of teamwork to regulate the levels of blood glucose in your body.
When insulin and glucagon are doing their jobs correctly, they can balance your blood sugar levels (which means no spikes or drops). It’s when they slack off that things can get tricky.
Insulin is a hormone that’s essential for survival. Your pancreas produces insulin in response to things like hormones and blood sugar levels.
Insulin helps cells in your body properly absorb the glucose in your blood so it can become the energy your cells need to function.
Glucagon is similar to insulin: It’s another hormone your pancreas releases that controls the levels of glucose in your blood.
Glucagon works with your liver to prevent your blood sugar level from dropping too low. It also helps convert glycogen into glucose and releases it into your blood so your body can use it for energy.
Ever the multitasker, glucagon also works to keep your liver from consuming too much glucose in order to keep your blood sugar stable throughout your body.
Now you know insulin and glucagon have pretty similar jobs. But how do these hormones work together?
When they’re doing their jobs correctly, they work in perfect balance: Insulin prevents glucose levels from getting too high while glucagon prevents them from getting too low.
Both need to be effective for your blood sugar levels to stay, well, as close to perfect as possible.
When insulin and glucagon aren’t working correctly, things get complicated. If one or the other (or both) isn’t properly regulating glucose levels, those levels will get thrown off, which can have some pretty serious side effects.
The 3 G’s
Gluco… glyca… what? We know — there are a lot of G words in this article. Here’s a refresher on what they mean and how they’re different.
- Glucose: “Glucose” is another word for blood sugar. Basically, it’s the sugar in your blood that fuels your cells and gives your body energy.
- Glycogen: It sounds similar to “glucagon,” but glycogen is different. It’s a substance that’s made from glucose, and it gets stored in your liver and muscle cells and is eventually used for energy.
- Glucagon: This is a hormone that controls the levels of glucose in your body by telling your cells to convert glycogen into glucose and then releasing it into your blood.
When your body chronically isn’t producing the correct amount of insulin or glucagon, it can result in glucose disorders like prediabetes, type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and even gestational diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes is less common than its sibling, type 2. If you’ve been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D), that means your pancreas isn’t making enough insulin or isn’t producing any.
T1D is caused by an autoimmune reaction that destroys beta cells in your pancreas, which are responsible for making insulin. Developing T1D is usually linked to genetics or other environmental triggers but not to diet or lifestyle.
People with T1D need to take insulin daily to prevent glucose from building up in their bloodstream, which can lead to serious health complications like heart conditions, nerve damage, and vision loss.
Type 2 diabetes is more common. Of the 30 million Americans who have diabetes, 90 to 95 percent of them have type 2.
This is another condition caused by an issue with insulin: Your body makes insulin (good!), but your cells don’t know how to deal with it (bad!).
When your cells don’t know how to react to insulin, it’s called insulin resistance.
Your pancreas, noticing that the cells seem to have no idea what they’re doing, responds by creating more insulin and, eventually, by not creating enough. The whole process throws your blood sugar levels out of whack.
T2D is typically preceded by prediabetes. Both conditions can be brought on by diet and lifestyle factors such as eating a lot of sugar or not getting enough exercise, but other factors are involved as well.
Lastly, gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that develops during pregnancy. It can typically be managed with diet and exercise, though occasionally insulin will be prescribed as well.
Gestational diabetes typically goes away after pregnancy (and it shouldn’t impact the health of the fetus).
All three types of diabetes are totally manageable with a doctor-prescribed treatment plan and a few simple lifestyle changes.
- Insulin and glucagon are hormones that help regulate blood sugar (aka glucose) in your body.
- Insulin helps cells absorb glucose in your bloodstream so the levels of glucose don’t get too high.
- Glucagon works with your liver to ensure that glucose levels don’t drop too low.
- When these hormones do their jobs correctly, your blood sugar levels stay stable and healthy.
- Type 1 diabetes occurs when your body can’t produce insulin as a result of an immune disorder.
- Prediabetes and type 2 diabetes develop when your body stops reacting to insulin properly or doesn’t make enough insulin. Both conditions are related to diet and lifestyle, among other factors.