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Glucose 101: How Insulin and Glucagon Work

May 24, 2021
Written by
Team NutriSense
Reviewed by

If you really want to understand how to manage your blood sugar levels, you should get to know your hormone functions.

Insulin and glucagon are essential building blocks of human biology. If you're monitoring your glucose levels for health and optimization reasons, it helps to know the nitty-gritty of the relationship these hormones have.

Our bodies work hard to continually keep our glucose in a tight range—only a few teaspoons are found in the bloodstream at any time. Insulin and Glucagon are the two hormones that work as opposing forces to constantly regulate glucose levels. 

When insulin and glucagon are working in perfect harmony, our blood sugar levels will stay nice and balanced. But what happens if they are not in sync? Let’s take a look at how these two hormones keep your blood sugar within healthy limits.

What are Insulin and Glucagon?

Insulin definition - anabolic hormone

Hormones are chemical messengers. Their job is to carry instructions from one set of cells to another. For example, when certain situations occur (like eating a large carb-heavy meal), the beta cells in the pancreas instruct the release of insulin. Insulin is an anabolic hormone, meaning that it promotes growth. It has many functions, including lowering glucose values. 

Insulin helps your cells take up glucose and use it as energy - or store it for future use. Without the messenger insulin, cells cannot use glucose as fuel, which can lead to them not working properly. If your body doesn’t make enough insulin, it can cause your blood sugar levels to rise.

Glucagon definition - catabolic hormone

Glucagon is a hormone released from the alpha cells in the pancreas. Its chemical messenger effect is the opposite of insulin. Its primary function is to raise glucose levels if they get too low. 

Glucagon is a catabolic hormone, meaning that it breaks down larger molecules. If blood sugar levels are low, glucagon tells your body to break down glycogen (stored glucose) in the liver to release glucose and increase glucose levels.

How insulin and glucagon work together

So, we’ve touched on the very basics. Insulin lowers your blood sugar levels, and glucagon raises them. They work opposite of each other, but also work together. However, there is a bit more to it than that. 

How insulin works

Healthy individuals release insulin throughout the day in small quantities to constantly keep their glucose in that tight range mentioned earlier. But, when we eat (especially carbohydrates), we release a larger burst of insulin. After meals, your body goes into something called the ‘fed state’. In this state, insulin is at its highest, and you get your energy from the food you are eating. 

Our digestive system breaks down the food we eat, and then the gut absorbs the glucose released from our food into the bloodstream -- raising blood sugar levels. This is when the hormones kick in. The rise in blood sugar stimulates the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin enables your body to take glucose out of the bloodstream into the cells so that they can use it for energy or store it for later. 

Insulin has both upregulatory and deregulatory actions. Cells use upregulation to increase their sensitivity to a specific hormone.  Deregulation means precisely the opposite and is when a cell makes itself less sensitive to a hormone.

Functions that insulin upregulates (stimulates)

  • Glucose uptake from the bloodstream - the removal of glucose from the bloodstream to the cells 
  • Glycogen synthesis - the production of glycogen
  • Lipogenesis - the formation of fatty acids
  • Protein synthesis - the production of proteins
  • DNA synthesis - the creation of DNA
  • Gene expression - the conversion of DNA into a product, such as a protein
  • Amino acid uptake - the taking in/use of amino acids


Functions that insulin downregulates (inhibits)

  • Lipolysis - breaking down of fats
  • Gluconeogenesis - the formation of glucose from a non-glucose source
  • Apoptosis - programmed cell death
  • Autophagy - the removal of damaged cells

How insulin controls glucose levels

Insulin is the key that allows your body to transport glucose and use it or store it as energy. 

First, it allows your cells to use glucose for immediate energy. It pulls glucose out of your bloodstream and into your cells to convert it into adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—the cell’s primary energy currency.  

If there is excess energy, insulin drives glucose into glycogen creation in the muscles and liver. In a healthy individual, 80-90% of consumed glucose gets stored as glycogen.

Insulin also suppresses gluconeogenesis to maintain lower glucose values. 

How glucagon works

When blood sugar levels become low, your body signals the release of glucagon from the pancreas and primarily acts on the liver to raise glucose levels. 

Glucagon is usually released in a fasted state and during “fight or flight” moments. In these scenarios, glucagon tells your liver and muscle cells to break down stored glycogen back into glucose. The glucose is then released into your bloodstream so your cells can use it for energy.

How glucagon controls glucose levels

When glucose levels drop, glucagon acts on the liver to initiate gluconeogenesis and glycogenolysis.

Gluconeogenesis is the formation of glucose from a non-glucose source such as an amino acid, providing another source of glucose for the blood to raise blood sugar levels. 

Glycogenolysis is the catabolic process of breaking down glycogen from the liver and muscle cells into glucose to produce more energy and raise blood sugar levels. 

Acute stress also stimulates glucagon and inhibits insulin, causing glucose levels to increase. 

As you can see, the relationship between insulin and glucagon is bidirectional. It keeps your blood sugar levels finely balanced while ensuring your body has a steady supply of energy. But, what happens if there is too much or too little of one of these hormones?

What happens if you have too much insulin or glucagon?

Understandably, this is one of the first questions people tend to ask when they start to learn about insulin and glucagon.

What happens if I have too much insulin?

There are two critical outcomes from having too much insulin.

  1. Hyperinsulinemia is abnormally high levels of insulin in the blood. When insulin levels are high, your cells start to ignore the effects of insulin even though there is plenty of it available. This leads to insulin resistance.
  1. Insulin Resistance causes your cells to reject glucose. Glucose then remains in the bloodstream, elevating blood glucose levels, and the pancreas continues to produce more and more insulin. 

Put simply—too much insulin in the blood leads to high glucose levels. 

What happens if I have too much glucagon?

A rare tumor called a glucagonoma can cause the production of too much glucagon. When your body makes too much glucagon, glucose isn't stored for energy. Instead, it remains in your bloodstream, leading to high blood sugar levels and symptoms of diabetes. 


What happens if you don’t have enough insulin or glucagon?

In comparison, low insulin and glucagon levels can also cause health problems. 

What happens if you don’t have enough insulin?

Too little insulin is a problem usually seen in people with diabetes. They can have problems producing insulin or using insulin effectively. In type 2 diabetes, the body can still make insulin, but it may not make enough, and/or insulin resistance has developed.

With type 1 diabetes, a person may make very little or no insulin whatsoever. Without enough insulin, your body can’t move glucose from the bloodstream into the cells. This results in high blood sugar levels and a lack of energy in the cells. 

Symptoms of low insulin in type 1 diabetes can include weight loss, fatigue, dehydration, and confusion. Therefore, people with type 1 diabetes need to inject insulin to prevent these symptoms, which can be life-threatening. 

What happens if you don’t have enough glucagon?

It is very rare not to produce enough glucagon, but it is sometimes seen in babies or can result from removing the pancreas, weight loss surgery, or diabetes. 

How to monitor your insulin & glucagon levels

Although you can’t directly monitor your insulin and glucagon levels at home, you can monitor your glucose levels with a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), providing you with the data you need to understand if there is a problem with these hormones. 

Continuous glucose monitoring enables you to track your glucose levels in real-time.  It can help you to identify if your glucose levels are significantly high or low and take the right steps to find out why. Wearing a CGM helps you take charge of your metabolic health and make positive changes to ensure your glucose levels remain stable. 

It can seem a bit daunting to start monitoring your own glucose levels, but the NutriSense Continuous Glucose Health Program simplifies it. It provides you with a CGM, accompanying CGM phone app, and personalized support from Registered Dietitians to help you decipher your data. If you have any concerns about your glucose levels, why not give it a try?


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Listen to the full podcast:
Glucose 101: How Insulin and Glucagon Work
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How Many Meals Should You Eat in a Day?

What's the perfect time to eat, and how many meals should you eat in a day? Explore how eating at different times and frequencies each day impacts your body and blood glucose.

Story
6
min
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NutriSense Dietitians Recommend: Glucose-Friendly Apple Cider Vinegar Drinks
NutriSense Dietitians Recommend: Glucose-Friendly Apple Cider Vinegar Drinks

Looking for a way to add apple cider vinegar into your diet? Start with some of these delicious glucose-friendly ACV drinks, recommended by our Nutrition Team.

Story
8
min
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Benefits of Walking After Eating: From Regulating Blood Sugar To Lowering Blood Pressure 
Benefits of Walking After Eating: From Regulating Blood Sugar To Lowering Blood Pressure 

Find out how taking a walk after your next meal can benefit various aspects of your health, including your blood glucose levels.

Podcast
55
min
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I Think, I Can—Using Technology as a Window Into Your Physiology
I Think, I Can—Using Technology as a Window Into Your Physiology

Molly explains how using a continuous glucose monitor is what personalized health care means. If you want to fine-tune your health, tune in to this special episode of I Think, I Can.

Podcast
10
min
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My Day | My Life: Nutritionist Carlee Hayes' Canine Cuddles
My Day | My Life: Nutritionist Carlee Hayes' Canine Cuddles

My Day | My Life explores the lives of people who have, in one way or another, mastered the art of aging. In this episode, meet Carlee Hayes, dietitian and Nutrition Manager at NutriSense.

Story
9
min
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Common Workout Injuries and How to Prevent Them
Common Workout Injuries and How to Prevent Them

Worried about getting injured during your next workout? Learn about the most common workout injuries, how they can affect blood glucose levels, and some tips to help you prevent them.

Story
6
min
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Eat with NutriSense This St. Patrick's Day
Eat with NutriSense This St. Patrick's Day

Would eating the same meal, at the same time, have the same blood glucose response for three different people? See what our team found out after sampling a delicious corned beef and cabbage dish in preparation for St. Patrick's Day!

Story
7
min
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Build Healthy Habits During Lent
Build Healthy Habits During Lent

Do you know what you're giving up for Lent this year? For those who observe it, this can be a good time to give up bad habits, and add healthy ones into your routine! Read on to find out more about how to build healthy habits this season.

Story
11
min
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Do You Know How Healthy Your Breakfast Cereal Is?
Do You Know How Healthy Your Breakfast Cereal Is?

Cereal is one of the most popular breakfast foods out there—but how healthy is it, really? Review the nutritional content of some popular breakfast cereals, and learn how to choose a healthy option for your individual needs.

Story
9
min
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Obesity: What You Should Know and Some New Research on the Condition
Obesity: What You Should Know and Some New Research on the Condition

Did you know that more than two in five adults have obesity? Find out more about the pressing public health issue, review some new research that is shedding light on the condition, and learn how to diagnose and treat it.

Story
7
min
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Tips for a Healthy, Happy Purim
Tips for a Healthy, Happy Purim

Purim, a joyous occasion celebrated around March or April every year, is just around the corner! Read on to learn more about the holiday and the delicious foods that accompany it.

Story
9
min
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Vinegar and Blood Sugar: Does It Lower It?
Vinegar and Blood Sugar: Does It Lower It?

Read on to find out what impact, if any, vinegar really has on our body’s ability to balance blood sugar.

Story
8
min
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Meal Frequency and Insulin Sensitivity: How Many Times Should You be Eating in a Day?
Meal Frequency and Insulin Sensitivity: How Many Times Should You be Eating in a Day?

If you have insulin sensitivity, is eating two large meals a day or three to five smaller meals better? Find out more about the relationship between meal frequency and insulin sensitivity, and how many times you should be eating in a day.

Story
9
min
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Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Endometriosis
Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a common yet often ignored condition. Learn more about the symptoms to watch out for, how you can seek treatment, and read first-hand accounts from two women who have dealt with endometriosis.

Story
8
min
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The Benefits and Risks of Popular Ayurvedic Herbs and Spices
The Benefits and Risks of Popular Ayurvedic Herbs and Spices

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian holistic healing system that dates back over 5,000 years. In the second installment of our series on the practice, review the benefits and risks associated with popular Ayurvedic herbs and spices.

Story
7
min
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Can Eating Pizza Raise Your Blood Glucose Levels?
Can Eating Pizza Raise Your Blood Glucose Levels?

Pizza can be challenging to enjoy eating without worrying about how it affects your health. But while it may be indulgent, it is possible to prepare or order it in a way that won’t wreak havoc on your health or blood sugar levels. Read on to find out more!

Story
8
min
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Do Artificial Sweeteners Raise Insulin Levels?
Do Artificial Sweeteners Raise Insulin Levels?

Review our post on the impacts artificial sweeteners have on blood glucose, insulin, and other areas of your personal health.

Story
8
min
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What Research Says About Sleep and Blood Sugar Levels
What Research Says About Sleep and Blood Sugar Levels

Recent research has shown that sleep and blood glucose are intricately connected. Read on to learn more about what this means for your blood sugar levels and overall health.

Story
8
min
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Understanding the Relationship Between Menopause and Metabolic Health
Understanding the Relationship Between Menopause and Metabolic Health

Did you know that menopause can affect your metabolic health, and vice versa? Read on to understand the relationship between metabolic health and menopause, and how to manage metabolic health during your menopausal journey. 

Podcast
57
min
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How a Continuous Blood Sugar Monitor Can Help You Find Your Perfect Diet
How a Continuous Blood Sugar Monitor Can Help You Find Your Perfect Diet

In this episode learn the truth about how we react to certain foods in regards to our blood sugar response and how you can tailor your diet according to your CGM results.

Podcast
66
min
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All About Blood Sugar With Molly Downey, RDN
All About Blood Sugar With Molly Downey, RDN

This week, dive into how to eat your carbs and manage your blood sugar, too with Molly Downey, RDN, LDN.

Story
8
min
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A NutriSense Dietitian's Favorite Kitchen Staples
A NutriSense Dietitian's Favorite Kitchen Staples

Food can be fun, pleasurable, and nutritious all at the same time. Read on to learn more about the two nutrient-dense kitchen staples one of our dietitians swears by to help optimize her health!

Story
10
min
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10 Tastiest Nutrient-Dense Foods From Around the World
10 Tastiest Nutrient-Dense Foods From Around the World

Instead of the type or amount of food you eat, you should focus on the amount of nutrients you're adding to every meal. Here are some of our favorite nutrient-dense foods from around the world to help you get started.

Story
7
min
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Do Pineapples Raise Blood Sugar Levels?
Do Pineapples Raise Blood Sugar Levels?

Learn everything you need to know about pineapples, your health, and your blood glucose levels, and see how our dietitians like to eat the sweet, tropical fruit. 

Story
14
min
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Setting Up The Right Diet Plan For Prediabetes [+Sample Diet Plan Included]
Setting Up The Right Diet Plan For Prediabetes [+Sample Diet Plan Included]

Learn more about the relationship between prediabetes and your diet, and see how to build a diet plan that works for you with some great tips, tricks and recipes from our nutrition team!

Story
9
min
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What You Should Know About Acupuncture
What You Should Know About Acupuncture

Learn more about the research on, as well as the benefits and risks of acupuncture, a form of alternative medicine that involves inserting needles into your body for pain and stress relief.

Story
6
min
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Triglycerides and Blood Glucose [+Tips to Lower Triglyceride Levels]
Triglycerides and Blood Glucose [+Tips to Lower Triglyceride Levels]

Learn everything you need to know about the relationship between triglycerides levels and blood glucose.


Story
5
min
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A Guide to Ayurveda
A Guide to Ayurveda

From acupuncture to chiropractic treatments and homeopathy to holistic healing, complementary and alternative medicine is increasing in popularity. Read on to learn more about Ayurveda, a healing system that originated in India thousands of years ago.  

Story
7
min
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Sugar and Cholesterol: Does Sugar Raise Your Cholesterol Levels?
Sugar and Cholesterol: Does Sugar Raise Your Cholesterol Levels?

Learn about the impact sugar has on your cholesterol levels and ways to manage your sugar intake.