After eating food, our bodies naturally secrete a hormone called insulin into the blood, which enables us to turn the sugar (glucose) from food into energy. Diabetes mellitus is a long-term metabolic disorder caused by an inability to produce this hormone. This leads to excessive glucose remaining in the blood, where it cannot be used for energy. Insulin, which is produced in the pancreas, lowers blood sugar levels by turning glucose into glycogen for storage in the body’s cells (liver, muscles and fat) where it can be broken down into energy. The other hormone produced in the pancreas is glucagon, which does the reverse. If there’s too little glucose in the blood, glucagon stimulates the body to release glucose from the liver into the blood, raising the blood sugar level.
There are two main types of diabetes, called type one and type two. Depending upon the type from which the individual suffers, they will either need to take insulin injections for the rest of their lives, or closely control their blood sugar levels through a strict diet respectively.
Of the two main types of diabetes, type one – also known as ‘insulin dependent’ diabetes – is by far the least common, occurring in just 10 per cent of diabetics in the UK. Type one diabetics do not produce their own insulin, so they must inject themselves with the correct dose of the hormone in order to get it into their blood stream. This type usually occurs in children and before the age of 40.
Type two diabetes is far more prevalent. People with this condition are known as ‘insulin resistant’, because they either do not produce enough insulin (which encourages the liver to release its stored glucose into the blood| or their cells don’t react to it in the way they should. Type two diabetes can be controlled through healthy eating and closely monitoring blood sugar levels, but often tablet medication may also need to be taken. Overweight people are more at risk of developing type two diabetes, because fat around the belly releases chemicals that disrupt the metabolic system.
How does the pancreas produce insulin?
The pancreas is a long, tapered gland located deep inside the abdomen, behind the stomach. Not only does this organ produce enzymes for the breakdown of food during digestion, it also produces the hormones insulin and glucagon, which regulate the body’s blood sugar levels if they get too high or too low. After eating, when blood sugar levels are high, insulin causes the cells in the body to absorb glucose for fuel, thereby bringing the level of sugar in the blood down. After exercising or going without food, however, blood sugar levels will be low and so the body stimulates the release of glucose stored in the liver in order to raise it.
In diabetics the pancreas is either not producing insulin, or the body cannot use it properly. Subsequently the body’s blood sugar levels rise dangerously high as unused sugar accumulates in the blood and urine.