How Insulin and Glucose Work Together: What to Know
Learn the basics of how your body's insulin and glucose levels work together.

How Insulin and Glucose Work Together: What to Know

By Ana G Reisdorf, MS, RD

If you were recently diagnosed with prediabetes or diabetes, the news can be overwhelming. Maybe you're still processing and haven't had a chance to figure out what changes you need to make or what steps to take. Along with a wave of new health information about eating plans, treatment, exercise and complications comes an acquaintance with terms and concepts that may seem overwhelming.

For example, terms related to "insulin" and "glucose levels" likely pepper your conversations with your doctor and loved ones.

How they work together and what they mean in relation to your diabetes management is probably less clear. Understanding your body, metabolism and your relationship with food is critical to staying healthy and at your best. Let's dive in.

Your Hormones and Digestion

The food you eat every day is made up of three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat. Each of these nutrients provides the energy and building blocks you need to stay alive.

When you start to chew your food, your body begins the process of digestion and absorption of these macronutrients. Several hormones, including insulin from your pancreas, are released to signal to the rest of your body that food is coming.

Insulin moves around your body, working like an alarm system that tells individual cells that glucose is available. You can think of insulin as a key that unlocks your cell doors, opening them up to absorb glucose used for energy.

The Relationship Between Your Body's Insulin and Glucose Levels

The macronutrients insulin manages are carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are found particularly in foods such as bread, pasta, fruit, milk and sweets. Carbohydrate foods are digested, or broken down, into smaller sugars and glucose so they can enter your bloodstream.

The main job of insulin is to control how much glucose is in your bloodstream after eating. It does so by telling your cells to absorb the glucose as it comes in, preventing the glucose from hanging around in the blood.

High levels of glucose allowed to remain in the bloodstream can be highly toxic. Left untreated, high glucose can lead to long-term complications that include blindness, nerve damage and kidney disease, to name a few.

A diagnosis of prediabetes or diabetes is an indication that your insulin isn't working well to control glucose resulting in high glucose readings.

Depending on the type of diabetes, there can be various reasons why your glucose levels are high. Your insulin may be unavailable or your cells may have stopped responding to it. Your doctor can give you more details about the type of diabetes you have and the treatment that is best for you.

Glucose Monitoring and Management

A great place to start if you're newly diagnosed is to learn as much as possible about diabetes, particularly about what types of lifestyle changes you can make to manage your blood glucose. Speak to your doctor about your best options and ask for referrals to health professionals and specialists.

Your doctor may also suggest you start monitoring your blood glucose regularly to learn how your body responds to the food you eat.

Talk to your doctor about glucose monitors that can support your diabetes management. Some monitors on the market today can alert you when your glucose is low or high. They can also give you a history of your glucose levels over the past several days or weeks.

The important thing is to not get overwhelmed. Focus on learning and taking small steps toward staying healthy. The more you know about what's going on in your body, the less your diagnosis can control your life.