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What Are Alpha Cells?

By A.M. Boyle
Updated: May 17, 2024

Alpha cells are endocrine cells that are present within the pancreas in a region called the islets of Langerhans. These particular cells produce a specific hormone called glucagon. The hormone glucagon is vital to regulation of blood glucose levels, that is, the amount of glucose, or sugar, within the bloodstream.

The pancreas, which rests right behind and slightly below the stomach, plays a crucial part in the digestive process. The islets of Langerhan, named for the person who discovered it in 1869, is a region within the pancreas made up primarily of hormone-producing endocrine cells. Alpha cells reside in this region and are necessary to the production the hormone glucagon. Glucagon plays an important role in raising blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels.

The glucagon produced by the alpha cells acts to raise blood sugar levels in the body by breaking down glycogen, a substance produced in the liver, into a type of sugar called glucose. The process of converting glycogen into glucose is called glycogenolysis. The glucose that is produced during glycogenolysis enters the bloodstream and is then carried by the blood to different cells in the body. The cells use the glucose as fuel, and it is the primary source of energy for the body.

The human body constantly regulates the amount of blood sugar in the bloodstream. When blood sugar levels go too low, the alpha cells are called into action, and the necessary amounts of glucagon are released, triggering the process of glycogenolysis, which results in glucose production. Without the alpha cells, the human body would not be able to produce glucose and would therefore not be able to maintain adequate blood glucose levels.

When blood sugar levels go too low and the condition is not corrected, serious health problems can result. The condition, called hypoglycemia, causes a variety of troublesome symptoms. A person with low blood sugar might feel dizzy, shaky, and weak. He or she might also experience a rapid heartbeat, break out in a clammy sweat, or have blurred vision. If left untreated, the condition could degenerate and become more serious, causing mental confusion, seizures, unconsciousness, and coma.

People who suffer from a condition called diabetes often have difficulty with excessive amounts of glucose in their bloodstreams. This condition is sometimes caused by the inability of the body to produce sufficient amounts of insulin, which is the substance that allows cells to absorb the glucose from the blood. A person’s cells may also be resistive to insulin, thus inhibiting the absorption of glucose from the blood. In order to correct this condition, medications are sometimes prescribed that inhibit the production of glucagon by the alpha cells.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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