Diabetic insulin has been around for nearly 100 years, so it is easy to forget how it changed the face of diabetes. Here is how the change happened, and how insulin saved my life.
Before diabetic insulin was discovered, having diabetes was a death sentence.
There was no known medication or diet or herb that lowered blood sugar reliably or kept type 1 diabetics alive.
One ancient doctor said that life with diabetes was "short, disgusting and painful." Those early doctors observed two kinds of diabetes but did not know what to do about them.
In the 1890s researchers removed the pancreas from some dogs, observing that the dogs became diabetic immediately. This is how they found where diabetes originated.
Studying the pancreas, Dr. Langerhans discovered little islands where hormones for using sugar were manufactured. He named the islands after himself: the islets of Langerhans.
In 1910 another doctor isolated one of the hormones. Using the Latin word for island, he named it insulin.
The first diabetic was injected with insulin in 1922 by Dr. Banting and his colleague, and they won the Nobel Prize in 1923 for patenting diabetic insulin.
Those two doctors chose to make their patent available free worldwide. Because of their generous act, insulin flew into production everywhere.
This is why the birthday of Dr. Banting, November 14, is World Diabetes Day.
The first insulin came straight from the pancreas of pigs and cows. Then in the 1980s synthetic human insulin was developed.
In the United States this synthetic diabetic insulin is the only kind available, but animal insulin is used with success in other countries to keep blood sugar normal.
There are several types of insulin, separated by the way they act according to three things:
Rapid-acting insulin starts to work within a few minutes and is out of the blood within a couple of hours, with a peak at about an hour.
Short-acting insulin (regular) begins at around 30 minutes and
stays in the blood for 3 to 6 hours, with a peak 2 to 3 hours after
Intermediate-acting takes 2 to 4 hours to start working and lasts 12 to 18 hours, peaking at anywhere from 4 to 12 hours. This can cause dangerous blood sugar lows during the night for some of us.
Long-acting, or 24-hour insulin does not begin to work until more than 6 hours after injection, but it works evenly over 24 hours without peaks.
In the old days injecting insulin meant boiling glass syringes and big metal needles to use them over and over. Today's tiny single use needles make it easier and far less painful to control blood sugar with insulin.
The insulin pen is a great invention because it replaces glass vials. If you are on more than one kind of insulin, the pen keeps you from mixing up your vials. Measuring is much simpler too.
But most of us still use the glass bottles of insulin and single use syringes.
Our syringes come in boxes of 100 with the needles attached and capped. The needles we use are so small they are nearly invisible, and there are several lengths to choose from.
Modern insulin pumps are the high tech method for getting insulin, making life easier for type 1 diabetics and many of us type 2's as well.
Nasal insulin was tested and pulled off the market when people did not warm up to it, but we may hear more about this inhaled insulin later. It might have a future in helping with diabetic Alzheimer disease.
We used to be told to keep diabetic insulin refrigerated, but that has changed. You can keep it at room temperature for up to a month after you open a vial or pen.
But room temperature means a comfortable range. You cannot put your diabetic insulin in a glove box or set it close to a heater or carry it in your pocket where the temperature gets up to 90 degrees or so.
Freezing diabetic insulin will ruin it too. That means freezer packs are not good because your insulin will get too cold.
The cooling wallet is a great invention. It will keep insulin from getting too hot or too cold for over a day. Get one on Amazon or from a diabetic website to carry insulin in your pocket or purse.
The crystals inside the pouch are activated by running cold water on them. They are totally reusable and perfect for traveling.
Like so many other type 2's, I was happy that I did not have to inject the dreaded insulin.
It took one little tick to change things. After many years of doing pretty well with medication and diet, I contracted Lyme disease.
My blood sugar flew out of control, forcing my doctors to prescribe injections.
I felt I had failed, that this was the beginning of the end.
But I have found it true that using insulin gives diabetics tighter control of blood sugar. I have seen improvement in the complications because I keep much better track of blood sugar levels since being on insulin.
The more I see the long-term benefits in length and quality of life, the more I realize diabetic insulin is a life saver. I believe it has saved mine.
If you have to go on insulin, do not feel it is the end or that you have failed. This is only another bend in the bumpy road of type 2, a bend that may lead you to a longer life.