Sugar is one of the most important fuels our bodies use to produce energy and survive. However, too much sugar can cause damage to our organs.
Our bodies naturally produce a hormone called insulin that helps regulate how much sugar is circulating in our blood at any given time, even when we eat sugary foods or don’t eat anything for a long stretch of time.
Cells in our pancreas produce insulin and release it into the bloodstream when our blood sugar is high, like right after we eat a meal. The opposite is true as well: When our blood sugar is low, like during a period of fasting, we release less insulin. These are examples of how our blood sugar levels regulate the production and release of insulin. But insulin also helps lower our blood sugar.
Insulin in the bloodstream travels throughout the body and interacts with insulin receptors that are located on many of our organs, including the liver, fat and muscle. When insulin interacts with one of these receptors, it triggers events that allow the organs to store sugar. From there, we either use the sugar as energy right away or hold on to it for later use.
Insulin also prevents our liver from making more sugar than we really need. For example, when we go for long periods without eating, our body breaks down a stored form of sugar to give us energy. Then, we need to put more back into storage. But when there is enough sugar in our blood, insulin prevents our body from breaking down more than is needed.
To put this all into perspective for a healthy person, let’s say you eat a big bowl of pasta for dinner. After digesting of all that yummy pasta, your blood sugar increases and tells your pancreas to produce and release insulin. The released insulin does its job to lower your blood sugar back to the normal range by using some of it for energy, storing some for another time and preventing any excess sugar production.
This normal response to insulin allows us to enjoy many carbohydrate- and sugar-rich foods. However, there are conditions, such as diabetes, where the body either does not make insulin (type 1 diabetes) or does not respond to it properly (type 2 diabetes). Luckily, injections of insulin are available to help people that do not make their own. Other medications can help those who do not respond well to their own insulin.
Now that you know how insulin works, go ahead and enjoy that hearty Italian dinner or piece of chocolate cake—in moderation—and let insulin do its job.
Casey Derella is a doctoral candidate in the Laboratory of Integrative Vascular and Exercise Physiology at Augusta University in Georgia. She researches how various diseases alter vascular and skeletal muscle function and ultimately contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease.