Back to Diabetes Basics What is Insulin?


Insulin is a hormone produced by beta cells in the pancreas. It has three important functions:1

  1. Allow glucose to pass into cells, where it is used for energy.
  2. Suppress excess production of sugar in the liver and muscles.
  3. Suppress breakdown of fat for energy.

In the absence of insulin, blood sugar levels rise because muscle and fat cells aren't able to utilize glucose for energy. They signal the body that they're "hungry." The liver then releases glycogen, a form of stored glucose. This further increases the blood sugar level. When the blood sugar level reaches about 180 mg/dl, glucose begins to spill into the urine. Large amounts of water are needed to dissolve the excess sugar, resulting in excessive thirst and urination.

Without glucose for energy, the body begins to metabolize protein and fat. Fat metabolism results in the production of ketones in the liver. Ketones are excreted in the urine along with sodium bicarbonate, which results in a decrease in the pH of the blood. This condition is called acidosis. To correct the acidosis, the body begins a deep, labored respiration, called Kussmaul's respiration. Left unchecked, a person in this situation will fall into a coma and die.

Common Questions

Why do I have to inject insulin?
Insulin must be injected because it is a protein. If it were taken orally, the body's digestive system would break it down, rendering it useless.

Where should I store insulin?
Unopened insulin vials should be kept cool. Storing them in the refrigerator will help them last as long as possible. Never freeze insulin, however, as freezing can destroy it. Open insulin, whether vials or pens, can be kept at room temperature for about a month.

Where does insulin come from?
Insulin used by people with diabetes can come from three sources: human (created via recombinant DNA methods), pork, or beef. Beef insulin has been discontinued in the US, and essentially all people who are newly diagnosed are placed on human insulin.

What kinds of insulin are there?
Insulin is classified according to how long the insulin works. There are several types of insulin, listed here in order of rate of action. Be aware that duration of insulin action varies by individual, activity level and location of injection.

Types and Duration of Action of Insulins Available in the United States

Type of Insulin
(Trade Names)
Supplier Appearance Begins Working Peak Activity All Gone
Short Acting
NovoLog® / NovoRapid® (insulin aspart) Novo Nordisk Clear 10 - 15 minutes 30 - 60 minutes 4 hours
Apidra® (insulin glulisine) Sanofi Aventis Clear 10 - 15 minutes 30 - 60 minutes 4 hours
Humalog® (insulin lispro) Eli Lilly Clear 10 - 15 minutes 30 - 60 minutes 4 hours
(Humulin, Actrapid, Velosulin®)
Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk Clear 30 minutes 2 - 4 hours 4 - 8 hours
Intermediate Acting
Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk Cloudy 2 - 4 hours 6 - 8 hours 12 - 15 hours
Long Acting
LANTUS® (insulin glargine) Aventis Clear 4 - 6 hours No peak 24+ hours
Levemir® (insulin detemir) Novo Nordisk Clear 1 - 2 hours 2 - 12 hours
(mild, varies by dose)
Up to 24 hours
(varies by dose)
Pre-Mixed (Action Varies)
70/30 or 50/50 are common mixes
Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk Cloudy 30 minutes Varies 18 - 24 hours
75/25 and 50/50
Eli Lilly Cloudy 10-15 minutes Varies 12 - 15 hours
NovoLog Mix 70/30
Novo Nordisk Cloudy 10-15 minutes Varies 10 - 12 hours

Production of Insulin in the Body

The creation of insulin in the beta cells of the pancreas is a two step procedure. Beta cells first produce preproinsulin. Preproinsulin is cleaved to create proinsulin, which is further cleaved to produce equal amounts of insulin and C-peptide. Endogenous (self-produced) insulin has a half-life of about four minutes in the bloodstream. C-peptide lasts about 30 minutes. By measuring the amount of C-peptide in the blood, scientists can determine the amount of insulin produced by the pancreas.2

In people who do not have diabetes, the pancreas stores about 200 units of insulin. The average basal rate for adults is one to two units per hour. After meals, insulin secretion increases to four-to-six units per hour.3

For More Information

  1. Clinical Data
    1. Insulin questions and insulin analog questions from the Diabetes Team
    2. Clinical Practice Recommendations: Insulin Administration by the American Diabetes Association
    3. Insulin Treatment In Type 1 Diabetes.
    4. Long-term Intervention Studies Using Insulin In Patients With Type 1 Diabetes.
    5. How Long Should Insulin Be Used Once a Vial Is Started?
    6. Avoiding Insulin Errors. Also available in PDF format.
    7. Insulin errors--abbreviations will get U in trouble examines the importance of double-checking your insulin vials.
    8. Insulin from Insulin-Dependent Diabetes in Children, Adolescents and Adults by Ragnar Hanas, M.D.
    9. Correction Factor: The 1800 Rule For Determining Your Correction Factor shows how far your blood sugar is likely to drop per unit of short-acting insulin
    10. Insulin: The Facts by the Canadian Diabetes Association
    11. The Protein Data Bank has a 3-D graphical view of an insulin hexamer.
    12. Severe insulin resistance secondary to insulin antibodies: successful treatment with the immunosuppressant MMF.

  2. Industry Links
    1. LANTUS® Long-Acting Insulin Mechanism of Action and LANTUS® Basal Insulin Compared to NPH Human Insulin
    2. Time Activity Profiles of Novo Nordisk insulins
    3. Time Activity Profiles of Lilly insulins
    4. Humalog® for Diabetes Educational Materials

  3. History of Insulin
    1. The Discovery of Insulin explores the work of Canadians Banting, Best, Colip and Macleod
    2. The dLife TV production History of Insulin recounts the discovery of insulin and how it changed the lives of people with type 1 diabetes.
    3. The History of Insulin (PDF)

  4. Animal Sourced Insulins
    1. IDF Position Statement on Animal, Human and Analogue Insulins.
    2. Frequently Asked Questions about Importing Beef or Pork Insulin for Personal Use is from the FDA

Foot Notes

  1. Understanding Insulin-Dependent Diabetes, 11th Edition by H. Peter Chase, M.D., 2006. See Insulin: Types and Activities section (PDF).
  2. Management of Diabetes Mellitus: Perspectives of Care Across the Life Span edited by Debra Haire-Joshu, MSEd, MSN, PhD, RN., St. Louis, 1992, pp. 120-121.
  3. Ibid.

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Last Updated: Thursday February 27, 2014 19:28:21
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