Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. It helps the body use glucose and helps control blood glucose levels. People with type 1 diabetes don’t produce any insulin and depend on insulin injections for survival. For people with type 2 diabetes, who don’t produce enough insulin on their own, insulin therapy may become a critical part of managing their disease.
If you’re a new insulin user, you may not know much about the stuff. And even if you’ve been on insulin for years, there may be a few things you don’t realize.
1. Insulin is not a last resort.
You may be worried about starting insulin because you feel you’ve “failed” in controlling your disease, or you believe it’s a sign your health is on a fast decline. It’s true that diabetes progresses the longer a person has it. Over years, your body may have a tougher and tougher time producing or using its own insulin. But that doesn’t mean it’s all downhill after starting insulin. “Insulin is just another tool in the toolbox. It’s a natural approach to treating diabetes,” says Rob Roscoe, a clinical pharmacist and certified diabetes educator. “A lot of people think insulin is the last straw. But in some cases, it’s the first therapy we use.”
2. Insulin doesn’t have to hurt.
Unlike oral diabetes medications, insulin has to be injected to work. Some folks are reluctant to take insulin because they’re afraid of painful pokes. But it doesn’t have to hurt. Even kids with type 1 diabetes learn to give themselves insulin. Today’s insulin pens use such tiny needles, they’re pretty much painless. (For certain types of insulin, there are even injectors that push insulin through the skin without needles.) When he’s training new insulin users, Roscoe says, “I always enjoy watching their faces when they realize taking insulin doesn’t hurt and they can actually do it.”
3. Insulin isn’t so inconvenient.
Devices used to deliver insulin are simpler and more portable than in the past. Most people use pens, which are a cinch to carry around; some even come preloaded with insulin cartridges. Pumps are another easy way to take your insulin: They can be programmed to give you insulin automatically on a regular schedule. And when you need to take extra injections, all you have to do is “dial up” an amount of insulin and press a button.
4. Insulin has improved dramatically.
When insulin treatment was pioneered in the 1920s, it was made from the pancreatic tissue of pigs and cows. In fact, animals were used in the manufacture of insulin up until the 1980s. But today, insulin used to treat diabetes is very different. Most insulin is made by combining simple cells like bacteria with the human gene for producing insulin. “The newer forms of insulin are much more predictable and allows one to match closer to what is happening naturally inside,” says Roscoe.
5. Not all insulin is the same.
Molecular engineers today can make small changes to manufactured insulin, so it functions more like normal human insulin. These forms of insulin are called “analogues.” Different types of insulin vary greatly in the amount of time they take to start working, the length of time they work, and when their peak effect takes place. This means they can help people with a broad range of lifestyles, ages, health conditions and goals. Your healthcare professional can help you plan which insulin product is the best fit for you.
6. Insulin needs to be treated with care.
You may need insulin, but insulin has its own needs too. Even if it’s unopened, it needs to be kept cool in the refrigerator. Never let it freeze. Once insulin has been opened, it shouldn’t be kept for more than 28 days. And it should never be used past the expiration date. Find out what your insulin is supposed to look like (some are clear, some are cloudy) and always check it before injecting it.
Insulin isn’t a cure for diabetes, but it’s a very effective way to give your body what it needs to be healthy. Think life is going to change once you start taking insulin? It will: likely for the better. That’s what Roscoe regularly hears from his clients after they’ve started insulin. “They say they didn’t realize they could feel that good again, and that they should have started insulin sooner rather than keep putting it off.”
Web exclusive October 2011 Best Health magazine