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Role of Insulin and Other Hormones in Diabetes

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2021.

Our bodies need energy. We get that energy from food when the body changes that food into blood glucose. In turn, the body uses a number of different hormones, working together, to control how we use glucose. Hormones are chemicals the body naturally produces to control different functions.1,2

Insulin and other hormones that control glucose (sugar)

The hormones our bodies use to control glucose include:1

  • Insulin
  • Amylin
  • Incretins GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide-1), GIP (glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide)
  • Glucagon
  • Epinephrine, cortisol, and growth hormone

Insulin, amylin, and glucagon are made in the pancreas. Incretins are made in the intestines. Each hormone serves a different role in how the body processes the glucose made when carbohydrates are digested.1

Insulin serves as sort of a “gatekeeper,” controlling when and how much glucose enters cells to be transformed into energy. Insulin plays the largest role in how the body processes glucose, but other hormones are involved as well.1

Amylin controls how quickly or slowly the stomach empties and makes your brain feel like you have eaten a full meal.1

Incretins tell the body to make insulin after eating. These hormones also slow emptying of the stomach and promote the feeling of fullness.1

Glucagon controls when and how glucose and another fuel source, ketones, are made in the liver. It works overnight to tell the body to break starches and promotes the breakdown of fat in fat cells.1

Epinephrine, cortisol, and growth hormone are other hormones involved in how the body manages blood sugar levels.1

Type 2 diabetes and loss of glucose control

Normally, all of these hormones work together to control glucose and supply the body with its energy needs. When a person develops type 2 diabetes, the body loses the ability to control these processes.1,2

In type 2 diabetes, the body either does not make enough insulin or does not use its insulin well. When this happens, too much glucose stays in the blood, and not enough reaches the cells where it can be used as energy to drive body functions. When this happens it is called “insulin resistance.” Simply put, insulin resistance means the body is not using insulin the way it should.1,2

How insulin works in the body

Insulin is one of the true heroes of the body, acting as a kind of traffic cop. It is in charge of making sure energy traffic (in the form of glucose) flows smoothly and arrives at the cells. Among its many jobs, insulin:1,3

  • Allows glucose to enter cells to be used as energy
  • Stimulates glucose storage in the muscles and liver
  • Manages blood sugar levels by slowing liver glucose production
  • Stimulates growth of fat and muscle

Allows glucose entry into cells

Insulin travels from headquarters (the pancreas, where it is made) through the bloodstream to tissues and cells. Once it arrives, it unlocks the gates so glucose can enter and supply energy to the cells.1,3

Stimulates glucose storage

If the energy needs of cells are being met, insulin communicates that to muscle and liver cells and tells them to store extra glucose in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is a form of energy that can be transformed back into glucose later and used when the body needs it.1,3

Regulates blood sugar levels

Insulin plays a key role in controlling blood sugar. If it senses that there is too much glucose in the bloodstream, it can tell the liver to stop the chemical reactions that create glucose.1,3

Stimulates the growth of fat and muscle

Insulin tells the body when there is a need for more fat and muscle and can stimulate the growth of these tissues.1,3

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