While several hormones raise blood sugar levels—such as glucagon, epinephrine and norepinepherine—the only one known for lowering blood sugar is insulin. What is insulin, how does it work and what happens when we have too much or too little?
What Is Insulin?
Insulin regulates blood sugar levels. Most of the food we eat is turned into sugar (glucose) to be used as fuel by our bodies. The pancreas produces insulin, among other hormones, to deal with how much sugar is in the blood. If the body has too little sugar, it can becomes hypoglycemic; too much, diabetic.
How Insulin Works – It’s All About the Glucose
Insulin is a metabolic hormone that lowers blood glucose by pushing sugar from the bloodstream into the cells. An efficient pancreas adjusts the levels of insulin depending on how much glucose is in the blood. If the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, the sugar can’t enter the cells. It stays in the bloodstream causing high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia (diabetes).
Normal blood sugar levels range from 80 to 120 mg of glucose per 100 cubic centimeters of blood. Anything above 160 mg or below 65 mg results in either high or low blood sugar (LBS) and is considered abnormal. In the case of LBS, hormones, such as glucagon, work to raise glucose levels. Other “fight or flight”, or “counter regulatory” hormones (epinephrine and norepinepherine) kick in when the body senses danger. What’s too high or too low can vary depending on how a person feels after eating, or not eating.
Carbohydrates: Simple or complex?
There are basically three parts to food: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Carbohydrates are absorbed in the form of glucose. How quickly, depends on whether carbohydrates are simple or complex. Simple or fast-acting carbs (foods containing refined sugars, fruit and juices) are made of short-chain molecules and are broken down into glucose quickly, while complex carbs (vegetables, legumes and whole grains) are made of long-chain molecules and take longer to break down.
The Liver’s Job
Endocrinologist Barrett Chapin, Ph.D., explains that the liver maintains constant blood-glucose levels in two ways: by breaking down glucose molecules in glycogen after a meal is metabolized (to be stored in the body for later use) and by converting protein and fat into glucose to be used while fasting, or when stored glycogen levels run out.
Diabetes and Hypoglycemia
Insulin insufficiency can cause two types of diabetes: Type 1, formally known as juvenile or early onset diabetes, is typically treated with insulin injections to raise glucose levels in the cells. Type 2 is insulin-resistant and is generally treated with alternate remedies.
Too much glucose in the blood and not enough in the cells is hypoglycemia, or LBS. We depend on glucose for energy. The cells in the body store glucose in the form of glycogen. The cells change glycogen into glucose as needed. While other parts of the body can store glucose, the brain and eyes cannot. They completely depend on glucose in the blood, so the brain and eyes are most affected by LBS. Symptoms can range from mild headaches, blurred vision, shakiness, confusion, poor coordination, to seizures, coma and even death.
Treating Low Blood Sugar
To balance blood-sugar chemistry, co-authors Edward and Patricia Krimmel of the "Low Blood Sugar Handbook" suggest eating small meals rich in complex carbohydrates and proteins at regular intervals, minimizing refined foods and stimulants and avoiding stress.