January 24, 2018

Insulin History and How Insulin Works

It's been over 100 years since the lifesaving treatment of insulin was discovered by Dr. Banting. In this article we'll cover the history of insulin, types of insulin available, and a how-to for injecting insulin.

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Insulin History and How Insulin Works

Home / Living with Diabetes / Insulin History and How Insulin Works

For many people with diabetes, insulin therapy is a vital part of their diabetes management regimen. This treatment can help you live a normal life with diabetes. That’s true whether you have type 1 diabetes and can’t produce insulin on your own or have type 2 diabetes but have some insulin production issues.

However, just a century ago, diabetes management was very different. If you’ve ever been curious about why insulin is so effective, read on to find out more about how insulin therapy was created and what insulin does.

Insulin History

Humanity has known about diabetes for thousands of years. Still, the life-saving treatment known as insulin therapy has only been around for about a century. Insulin was discovered in 1921 at the University of Toronto. Its discovery was one of the most sensational developments in medicine, effectively treating a disease that relentlessly reduced millions to blindness, coma, and death.

In his book The Discovery of Insulin, author Michael Bliss wrote that the first attempts to use insulin on comatose people with diabetes created what seemed to be a miracle. These comatose patients awoke and returned to life.

Before insulin’s discovery, there were many different types of treatment, all mainly useless. The most effective was an extreme diet, which was much more severe than the well-balanced diabetes diets people with diabetes follow today. Patients managed to live a few years longer after starting the diet but ultimately died of starvation. Doctors who administered the diet in the 1920s were later reminded of their patients when they saw pictures of inmates at Nazi death camps.

Some people managed to follow this diet long enough to raise a child, but deviating from it by even one morsel could be enough to kill them. Bliss gives the example of a messenger boy who managed to follow an early diabetes diet until he couldn’t resist picking and eating a handful of cherries one day. He was dead in a week.

It is generally agreed that Dr. Fred Banting first identified insulin. Still, many years of research before and after by many other scientists and doctors contributed to making insulin therapy a reality.

Making it readily available was another problem. Insulin could not have been provided in quantity to the thousands, if not millions, of people who desperately needed it without the participation of drug companies. These companies included Eli Lilly and Connaught Laboratories, to name just two.

insulin history

How Insulin Works

Now that you have historical context on insulin’s discovery, are you still wondering what does insulin do for the body? If so, it’s time to answer the question, “how does insulin work?” For most people, the pancreas naturally produces this hormone. It then goes on to help cells absorb glucose in the bloodstream, which they use as fuel.

Insulin And Diabetes

That’s how insulin is supposed to work, but diabetes complicates matters. When people have type 1 diabetes, their immune system attacks the pancreas cells responsible for producing insulin. Eventually, these people are unable to produce enough insulin to meet their bodies’ needs. Without insulin, glucose quickly builds up in a person’s bloodstream.

Meanwhile, type 2 diabetes occurs when a person’s body develops a resistance to insulin’s effects. Since a person living with this disease needs more insulin to get the same results as a person without diabetes, their pancreas increases insulin production. Eventually, that can cause insulin-producing pancreas cells to “burn out.”

In either case, insulin therapy can help. This diabetes treatment involves the injection of insulin into a person’s body. That insulin can either accompany “normal” insulin or replace it entirely, depending on a patient’s needs.

Insulin Varieties

Many different types of insulin are available today. The differences between insulin varieties mostly come down to how quickly they activate and how long their effects last.

  • Rapid-acting insulin will work about 15 minutes after injection and last for three to four hours. This insulin variety is ideal for use right before eating.
  • Short-acting insulin is also commonly used before meals. It will take effect within a half-hour to an hour of being injected and last for approximately five to eight hours.
  • As its name suggests, intermediate-acting insulin falls between the extremes of insulin timescales. It will begin working an hour or two after you inject it and continue working for 14 to 16 hours.
  • Finally, you’ll have to wait a while for long-acting insulin to kick in – usually about two hours. When it does get started, its effects should last for 24 hours or even longer.

How To Inject Insulin

When you begin insulin therapy, your healthcare team will show you how to inject insulin. The information shared here shouldn’t replace this advice; instead, you should use it as a rough idea of how this process works.

You can inject insulin into various body parts, such as the abdomen, thighs, buttocks, and upper arms. It should not be injected within two inches of your belly button. Additionally, you should rotate insulin injection sites to keep your skin from thickening.

It’s also crucial to note that you can’t take insulin orally. Instead, you’ll need to use a syringe, pump, or pen to inject insulin.

Dealing With Insulin Shock

Sometimes, insulin therapy can be too effective. When your bloodstream contains too much insulin, you can run the risk of experiencing hypoglycemia or “insulin shock.” These conditions can result in minor inconveniences like irritability and shakiness or severe complications such as seizures, coma, or even death.

The symptoms of insulin shock depend on how long it’s gone without treatment, so be ready to deal with this condition as soon as you notice it! Consuming 15 to 20 grams of fast-acting carbs – such as a half-cup of non-diet soda/juice or 5-6 jelly beans – can help you balance your levels of glucose.

Enhance Your Insulin Therapy

It’s easy to forget just how important insulin therapy is when it comes to diabetes management. Now that you’ve had an opportunity to look at how insulin works and what life was like before this treatment, we hope you’ll appreciate this marvel of modern medicine more than ever! To learn even more about insulin, check out our blog article on how insulin pumps work.

Insulin therapy has progressed by leaps and bounds in the past 100 years. Just take a look at the advanced insulin pens and insulin pumps sold by US MED! Are you interested in ordering devices like these? If so, we’ll ship them to you free of charge and back these products with our 100% satisfaction guarantee.

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