Sunday, November 7, 2010

All about Insulin!

There is no cure for diabetes, but there are treatments available now!

Before the 1920s, a diagnosis of diabetes was basically a death sentence. A long, slow, painful death sentence. In the early 1920s, however, a duo of guys (Fredrick Banting & Charles Best) figured out how to extract insulin from healthy dogs and give it to “diabetic” dogs* to keep them alive! In very basic terms, they then figured out how to purify insulin from animals (like pigs & cows) enough to be able to give it to people and keep them alive, too! It was a medical miracle! They won a Nobel Prize for this, and, let’s be honest, it was well deserved.

Their work revolutionized the way diabetics were and are treated! And, millions of people have lived, and are alive, that would otherwise be dead, because of these guys! The New York Times wrote an awesome article detailing this “miracle drug” a few weeks ago. Check it out, it’s a great read!

So, let’s get some more low-down on insulin (I will talk about the other treatments for diabetes tomorrow).

So, obviously insulin was the first real treatment for diabetes, and it has come a LONG way since the days of Banting and Best. In the 1950s scientists figured out how to make synthetic insulins, and then synthetic human insulins in the 1970s. Animal insulins are no longer the norm, and I think most, if not all, pharmaceutical companies have stopped manufacturing them. If you want to see a really cool story (it might make you cry) about the history of insulin, check out this three-part series from dLife TV on the Joslin Diabetes Center website. Seriously, it's a tear jerker!

All types of diabetics can use insulin, but Type 1 diabetics absolutely must use insulin. There are no other viable treatment options for Type 1 diabetes. There are several types of insulin available: long acting, short acting, medium-ish acting, and several that are a pre-mixed combination of those . Insulin can only be injected (you can’t take an “insulin pill” for example), and diabetics that use insulin must take it subcutaneously either through syringes, pens, or insulin pumps. Depending on the type of diabetes you have, you have to take at least one injection of insulin a day, but it is more common to take 4 or more injections daily. It’s really variable based on each person’s needs. I, for example take about 6-7 injections a day. If you take insulin via a pump, you basically get a little amount of insulin all day long, but I will talk all about insulin pumps and how they work in a later post, because they are so rad they deserve their own discussion! This link will give you a basic overview, though, if you’re an interested over-achiever and want to learn more on your own.

Let me be VERY clear. INSULIN IS NOT A CURE. And, it’s not even a perfect treatment. There are MANY shortfalls to using insulin, the prohibitively high cost being the greatest, in my opinion. A bottle of one of the newer (and better working) types of insulin can cost $80-100 dollars, and let me tell you, that bottle is tiny! Also, synthetic insulin does not come complete with an entire endocrine and digestive system that automatically knows how much to make, how much to release, and when to release it. When you take insulin, you are attempting to mimic all of those reactions that take place normally in your body, and even the most conscientious diabetic can not do that perfectly all of the time. I would argue that they can’t even do it perfectly most of the time.

So, in the end, insulin is a miracle, and I’m so grateful it exists, but I’d be doing a disservice to the diabetes world if I didn’t point out its many problems. There is still a lot of improvement that needs to happen! Until my body can make its own insulin again, I will not consider diabetes cured.

NEXT UP: All about non-insulin treatments for diabetes! Also, stay tuned, my personal diagnosis story is coming up and my husband is probably going to guest post too!

*I want to take a moment to commemorate all the animals whose lives were and are sacrificed for the discovery and continued innovation of insulin. I am very aware that I owe my life to the sacrifice of these animals, and I honestly consider their lives sacred. At the diabetes camp I went to as a kid, we had an entire memorial statue dedicated to the countless number of dogs that gave their lives to save ours, and I was taught there to honor and respect their lives.

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