Everything you need to know about insulin

We know insulin is a big issue for those living with diabetes, but what exactly is it, how does it work, and are there ways we can control it?

Lucia Wright has had type 1 diabetes since she was 13.

For 13-year-old Lucia Wright, insulin injections are an essential part of every day.

As a young person living with type 1 diabetes, the Perth student relies on four daily injections of “human insulin” – a synthetic insulin that mimics the substance we make naturally – to stay alive.

So what exactly is insulin, this hormone we can’t live without?

What is insulin?

“Every time you sit down to a meal, the carbohydrates you ingest break down into glucose – a sugar that is your primary source of energy,” says Professor Liz Davis, head of endocrinology and diabetes at Perth’s Children’s Hospital.

“When the glucose enters your bloodstream, your pancreas responds by producing insulin, which allows glucose to enter your cells to provide energy.

“Without insulin, glucose can’t get into your cells. It helps keep our blood sugar level from getting too high, a condition known as hyperglycaemia, or too low, which is known as hypoglycaemia.”

Life-saving for diabetics

As Diabetes Australia explains, for people with type 1 diabetes the body produces little or no insulin because the cells that produce it have been destroyed by an autoimmune reaction in the body.

The cause of this autoimmune reaction is not known, nor can it be prevented or cured.

This means people living with diabetes, like Lucia, have to replace their insulin with daily injections.

This “holy grail of diabetes treatment” keeps more than one million Australians alive every year.

Described as one of the 20th century’s greatest medical discoveries, insulin was first used in the treatment of diabetics in 1922. Before then, it was the exception for people with type 1 to live more than a year or two.

“I’m just so grateful for science and for scientists who work on discoveries like this, which help people like me live a normal life,” Lucia says.

What about type 2 diabetes?

For people with type 2 diabetes, their bodies produce insulin but it doesn’t work as well as it should, which is known as insulin resistance.

To compensate, the body makes more, but eventually can’t make enough to keep the balance right.

Why we all need to know about insulin resistance

Diabetes is the fastest-growing chronic condition in Australia, and type 2 diabetes accounts for 85 per cent of all cases and counting.

If you have insulin resistance you have a greater chance of developing type 2 diabetes and heart conditions.

Risk factors include:

  • People with a family history of diabetes
  • People who are overweight (particularly around the stomach area)
  • Those who are physically inactive
  • Women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • Ethnic groups such as Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders

The good news is the experts say a healthy lifestyle can prevent up to 58 per cent of type 2 diabetes.

Studies have shown that combining healthy eating, weight loss and regular physical activity can help reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes for years to come.

Are you at risk?

Diabetes Australia has a quick risk calculator for type 2 diabetes that you can do at home.

Your GP or specialist can test your insulin resistance with a simple blood test.

Written by Liz McGrath.