The pancreas contains cells that produce hormones that are important in regulating the amount of glucose in the body. For instance, the beta cells of the pancreas produce the hormone insulin whenever blood sugar levels are high, which acts to facilitate the entrance of glucose into cells, thus lowering blood sugar levels. The alpha cells, on the other hand, secrete the hormone glucagon whenever blood sugar levels are low. This hormone is responsible in converting glycogen, which is stored in the liver and muscles, into glucose for cell consumption. This in effect brings the blood sugar level back to the normal range.
In people that do not have diabetes, the beta cells of the pancreas secrete limited amounts of insulin when their levels of blood sugar fall. At the same time, the alpha cells of the pancreas secrete more amounts of glucagon which prompts the liver to convert into glucose its stored glycogen.
Generally, individuals who have type 1 diabetes are no longer capable of secreting insulin whenever their blood sugar is up. Unfortunately their body may also become incapable of secreting glucagon when their blood sugar becomes low. This often predisposes them to suffer from hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Hypoglycemia can lead to the manifestation of symptoms such nervousness, hunger, sweating, weakness and palpitations, and can have serious complications, such as loss of consciousness, if not treated immediately.
Role of Glucagons in Controlling Diabetes
There are commercially available glucagon emergency kits, such as the GlucaGen Hypokit 1mg, available for people with type 1 diabetes who have hypoglycemia. Glucagon can be injected by a relative or a friend to a diabetic patient who becomes unconscious. These emergency kits can usually restore blood sugar to its normal level in five to ten minutes.
Included in the glucagon kit are the syringe containing a liquid solution, a vial of powdered glucagon, and instructions on how to use the kit. Potential users should first read the instructions before administering the solution to the person with diabetes. There are some instances when injection of the glucagon can result in vomiting, so people being administered with the hormone should be made to lie on their side and closely watched to prevent aspiration.
The role of glucagons in controlling diabetes also has its limitations. The effectiveness of glucagon injections usually depends on the amount of glycogen stored in the liver. A second injection during the day may have less effect as the liver may not have enough glycogen left. After a strenuous exercise glycogen may also be depleted, thus glycogen injection may also not be as effective. It is estimated that the body needs to have 24 hours of adequate blood sugar level in order to bring back glycogen stores into the liver.
Since many patients with type 1 diabetes are prone to hypoglycemia attacks, they are encouraged to ask their phyisicians about the use of glucagon and about its proper administration. Family members and caregivers should also learn about its correct use so they can be prepared when such occasion arises.
Health Central: Glucagon, www.healthcentral.com/diabetes/c/5068/69193/glucagon
DiabeteSuffolk.com: Understanding Diabetes, www.diabetesuffolk.com/UnderstandingDiabetes/Glucagon.htm
Diabetes Self Management: Glucagon, www.diabetesselfmanagement.com/Articles/Diabetes-Definitions/glucagon/