There are no two ways about it: insulin is a miracle drug. It was discovered in 1921 and has saved millions of lives in the last 95 years. Andrea Kirk explores the topic.
“In people with Type 1 diabetes, insulin is essential for maintaining good health, and many people died from Type 1 diabetes before insulin,” says endocrinologist Dr Joel Dave. “Insulin therapy is started as soon as the diagnosis is made, and although being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes can be a traumatic experience, with the use of insulin, you can maintain good health and achieve anything in life that those without diabetes can.”
For people with Type 2 diabetes, however, there is often a reluctance to start taking insulin. Some people manage to control their blood sugar without it, by making changes to their diet, getting more exercise and going on oral medication. But for others, insulin is a necessity.
“There’s a huge stigma about this,” says Mark Smith, who was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes a year ago. “I feel like starting insulin would mean that I’ve failed at controlling my blood sugar with lifestyle changes.”
Diabetes educator, Jeanne Berg, sees things differently. “Diabetes is a progressive condition and insulin therapy is inevitable. Some people take longer to get to the point of starting insulin than others, but every patient with diabetes gets there eventually. There shouldn’t be any shame or sense of failure in this.”
Jeanne says that in the past, doctors would try to intimidate people with Type 2 diabetes into changing their lifestyle. “They’d say: if you don’t change your diet and get more exercise, you’ll end up blind, or have your legs amputated, and eventually you’ll die.” This blame-filled approach may be part of the reason there is still such a stigma associated with Type 2 diabetes. “People would think ‘this is all my fault, I did this to myself’, but that is not the whole truth,” says Jeanne. “Diabetes has a genetic inheritance factor to it as well.”
Doctors and diabetes educators today steer away from using scare tactics and encourage people to accept insulin as a means of coping and having a more flexible life with diabetes.
Are there any benefits to starting insulin sooner?
“In people with Type 2 diabetes, there is a theory that glucose can cause damage to the beta-cells of the pancreas, which are the cells that make insulin,” says Dr Dave. “The longer the glucose remains high, the more damage occurs. Since insulin is the best way to lower blood glucose, some suggest that insulin should be taken sooner rather than later in order to preserve beta-cell function for longer.”