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Diabetes Basics: What is Insulin?

Everybody needs it, but do we understand what it does?

By Jessica FreebornPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 3 min read
Diabetes Basics: What is Insulin?
Photo by Jozsef Hocza on Unsplash

Disclaimer: The following information is based on my own research and lived experience as a type one diabetic and does not constitute medical advice. Information from this article should not substitute advice from your doctor or other healthcare professionals.

Hi, my name is Jessica, and I am a type one diabetic. I have been living with diabetes for over ten years. Diabetes is a disorder that seems straightforward and yet isn't all at the same time. The annoying bit about diabetes is that people think they understand what it means, and they don't.

I'm just as guilty as anyone else here. Before my diagnosis, if you had asked me what my pancreas does, I wouldn't have been able to tell you. And if you'd asked me what diabetes meant, I would have said, "It's when people can't have sugar." This where a lot of people start. Why should they care if it doesn't impact them? I certainly didn't care but then it became my problem, my life. Suddenly, my family and I had to learn what diabetes meant.

If we could be become diabetes experts in less than a year, I believe that you can too. Through this series of articles, I hope to help my readers understand diabetes and how it impacts the day-to-day life of people with the disorder.

Before we can get into nuances like insulin pumps and the glycemic index, we need to start with the basics of what isn't working in the body in the person with diabetes.

In short, it comes down to a hormone called insulin.

By Mykenzie Johnson on Unsplash

What is Insulin?

Insulin is a hormone made by an organ in your body called the pancreas. Specifically, beta cells in the Islets of Langerhans make insulin.

Your body needs insulin for your cells to properly use glucose from food.

The most common and useful analogy for insulin is that it's like a key. Without this key, the glucose from the food you eat can't get into your cells where the glucose is useful.

What does insulin do when I eat food?

In a healthy person, without diabetes, the body releases insulin at the perfect time: just when you need it, which is often when you eat food.

My favorite example of this idea comes from the trainer who came to teach me and my family on how to use my insulin pump. She explained how the normal pancreas works: "I say the phrase, 'Let's all go get milkshakes,' and our pancreases (meaning hers and my family's) all went 'Oooh, great idea,' and started kicking out insulin."

When a healthy person eats, the pancreas releases the insulin keys. From here, insulin unlocks the cells, the sugar (glucose) goes in, and your body gets to use the glucose for energy.

What happens when I don't have insulin?

Without insulin, the glucose from food just stays in the bloodstream. Here, it is both not useful and even harmful. If left untreated, it can lead to long-term damage to organs like your kidneys and even to life-threatening situations.

When people's bodies don't produce insulin as they should, or the body doesn't respond to it as it should, it can lead to the disease diabetes.

People with diabetes will sometimes need to take insulin in the form of shots, but we'll get more into that with later articles. In the meantime, if your pancreas works, celebrate it. Who knows? Maybe a milkshake is in order?

By David Moruzzi on Unsplash

Thanks for reading. If you liked what you read, you may find the following pieces interesting as well:

  • Life by a thousand fingersticks: The life lessons from my journey with diabetes.


American Diabetes Association: Insulin Basics

CDC: What is Type 1 Diabetes?

Diabetes.co.uk: You asked...Can I go insulin-free as someone with type 1 diabetes?

If you would like to receive regular updates on my work, please email me at jessicanorris640@gmailcom and ask to be added to my email list.

You can also follow me on Medium.


About the Creator

Jessica Freeborn

Passionate writer that is enthusiastic about writing engaging, compelling content. Excels in breaking down complex concepts into simple terms and connecting with readers through sharing stories and personal experience.

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    Jessica FreebornWritten by Jessica Freeborn

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