what is insulin

Discovering that your blood sugar, or glucose, is high can be scary, especially because it’s a sign you may have pre-diabetes or diabetes.

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What Is Insulin?

Insulin is a hormone that plays a major role in your health — and in your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Normally, your pancreas produces insulin, which helps move glucose out of your blood and into your cells. Insulin attaches to receptors on these cells, allowing glucose to enter them. Much like fuel powers a car, glucose gives your body the energy it needs to function.

Types of Diabetes

There are two distinct types of diabetes:

  • In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not produce insulin. Sugar is unable to get into the cells, so the sugar level in the blood increases. When the sugar level rises above normal, it results in high blood glucose, called hyperglycemia. Children and young adults are most frequently diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
  • In Type 2 diabetes, the pancreas still produces insulin, but the body doesn’t use it properly. “Higher levels of insulin are needed to make cells take up the sugar, and the body may not be able to produce enough insulin to meet this increased need,” said Michelle Griffith, MD, medical director at the UPMC Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology. Over time, untreated Type 2 diabetes can result in damage to your eyes, kidneys, nerves, and heart. You are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes if you are overweight, sedentary, have high blood pressure or cholesterol, or have a family history of Type 2 diabetes. People with Type 2 diabetes can sometimes get the condition under control with lifestyle measures such as diet and exercise, although some may still need to use insulin or oral medications.

Symptoms of Diabetes

Common symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Extreme tiredness
  • Increased thirst
  • Weight loss
  • Blurry vision
  • Frequent urination
  • Wounds that don’t heal well

However, if you have Type 2 diabetes, you may experience only some of these symptoms or none at all.

Using Supplemental Insulin

If you have diabetes, you should work with your doctor to determine your target blood glucose level. A normal blood glucose level is between 70 and 130, before a meal. At bedtime, a typical goal is to have blood glucose between 110 and 150. The goal for A1C is less than 7 percent. Your doctor can help determine what your personal goals should be.

“Individual factors, such as history of low blood sugars or other health conditions, may cause you to need a personalized target that is higher or lower than usual,” Dr. Griffth said.

Your doctor may recommend treating diabetes with supplemental insulin to help keep your blood sugar in the right range. This can involve giving yourself shots of insulin on a regular basis. Fortunately, insulin shots typically cause minimal pain because the needles are short and thin, and the shots are placed into fatty tissue below the skin.

To learn more about diabetes, treatment, and prevention, talk to your doctor or visit the UPMC Centers for Diabetes Education and Support webpage.

About Endocrinology

The UPMC Department of Endocrinology stands as a national leader in research of diabetes and endocrine conditions. We partner with the University of Pittsburgh Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism for research and clinical trials. We treat diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, hormonal disorders, and thyroid disorders at several locations across our communities. We also have specialized Diabetes Centers to help you manage your disease. Find an expert near you.