What Is the Connection between Beta Cells and Diabetes?

T. Broderick
T. Broderick

The connection between beta cells and diabetes is that when diabetes develops, beta cells in the pancreas can no longer secrete an appropriate amount of insulin. In a properly functioning pancreas, beta cells work in tandem with alpha cells, maintaining normal blood glucose levels. This system breaks down with the development of type one or type two diabetes. Depending on which type of diabetes develops, a patient may need diabetes management treatment for the rest of his or her life.

The pancreas is a complex organ that has three major roles, two of which involve maintaining normal blood glucose. Located near the junction of the stomach and small intestine, the pancreas secretes digestive juices into the small intestine that help break down fats and carbohydrates. The other two functions involve specialized cells located in a pancreatic structure known as the islets of Langerhans: alpha cells and beta cells. Alpha cells secrete a hormone known as glucagon, which converts stored energy into usable glucose. Beta cells produce insulin, which turns ingested glucose into stored energy.

For type one diabetes, the link between beta cells and diabetes begins with an autoimmune disorder. The body's immune system attacks the pancreas, killing the beta cells; as of 2011, the medical community continues to debate whether the root cause of type one diabetes is genetic or environmental. Though the body is still able to convert stored energy into glucose, it can no longer turn ingested glucose into stored energy. The body expels the excess glucose through urine. When the blood glucose level spikes, a patient feels a consistent thirst and need to urinate. Before synthetic insulin became available in the 20th century, the condition was always fatal.

In type two diabetes, beta cells and diabetes interact in a different way. Type two diabetes develops from eating a diet high in processed sugar and carbohydrates. After some time, the pancreas' beta cells can no longer properly respond to glucose and excrete an insufficient amount of insulin. Blood glucose rises to two to three times normal levels. The initial symptoms of type two diabetes are similar to those of type one.

The relationship between beta cells and diabetes has made it necessary to base modern diabetes treatment around synthetic insulin and beta cell stimulating medication. For type one diabetics, the only treatment option is insulin injections before every meal. For some type two diabetics, medications exist that target the link between beta cells and diabetes. These medications stimulate the production of insulin. It is necessary to discuss all treatment options with a physician before treating diabetes through insulin, medication and/or lifestyle changes.

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