Everyone knows insulin is critical for diabetics, but how many people know how insulin transfers glucose into our cells. At first blush, this process may seem unimportant. After all, who cares?
Nonetheless, I would argue that this process is extremely relevant to understanding a lot about diabetes, particularly type 2 diabetes. It is also important to understand because this process can take on more significance the longer you have diabetes, as the transfer of glucose into your cells can begin to break down further.
Don’t worry, the process is not that difficult. First, we’ll take a look at how the process is supposed to work. Then, we’ll switch gears and learn what happens when you have type 2 diabetes.
Normal Transfer of Glucose
Normally, in non-diabetics, insulin is released in small amounts by the pancreas to help our body’s cells process glucose into energy. This is happening all the time, but around meal times, more insulin is produced to help process the increased glucose on our blood.
Regulating this process is the beta cells in the pancreas. The beta cells monitor the levels of glucose in the blood and produce the necessary amount of insulin.
Insulin is a protein and is carried in the blood plasma, the liquid form of our blood. To get technical, the insulin attaches to beta globulins within the blood plasma.
Globulins, both alpha and beta, are responsible for circulating hormones and vitamins throughout your body.
As the insulin circulates throughout the body in your blood, it comes into contact with your cells. Your cells are looking for the glucose for energy. When the insulin comes in contact with cell membranes, the insulin causes a cell’s membrane to become more susceptible to glucose entering it.
Essentially, the membrane becomes more permeable or “leaky” for the non scientific types. The more insulin in the blood plasma, the more “leaky” a cell membrane gets causing more glucose to enter.
The glucose that can’t be used by the cells ultimately is converted to fat. This is how the insulin transfer glucose works in the normal human body.
How Diabetes Affects the Transfer of Glucose
Obviously, in diabetics, this normal process is interrupted and one of three things happen. The pancreas stops producing insulin altogether, as is the case in type 1 diabetes. In this case, the person needs to physically inject insulin either by syringe or an insulin pump to facilitate the transfer of glucose into your cells.
Alternatively, not enough insulin is produced or your cells become resistant to the effect of insulin trying to facilitate this transfer. This resistance is called insulin resistance. This condition is found in type 2 diabetes.
If you have type 2 diabetes, you know the drill to solving this problem: eat right, exercise and take your medications. If you have poorly controlled diabetes or the condition is simply worsening, then the insulin glucose transfer process breaks down further and additional medication or even insulin injections may be required.
By Erich Schultz – Last Reviewed January 2013.