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Glucagon - Functions and Dysfunctions

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Glucagon is a hormone secreted by the pancreas to control the glucose level in the bloodstream. Read the article to know more.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Nagaraj

Published At May 12, 2023
Reviewed AtSeptember 27, 2023

Introduction

The pancreas is an organ and a gland that has both endocrine and exocrine functions. It is a large gland that is situated behind the stomach that is about 6 inches long. Although the pancreas is primarily an exocrine gland that secretes a range of digestive enzymes, it also serves an endocrine purpose. Its pancreatic islets, which are cellular clusters formerly referred to as the islets of Langerhans, secrete the hormones glucagon, insulin, somatostatin, and pancreatic polypeptide (PP). The primary function of the pancreas is to keep blood sugar levels in a normal range.

What Is Glucagon?

The pancreatic islets of Langerhans' alpha cells secrete the peptide hormone glucagon in response to a drop in blood sugar, prolonged fasting, physical activity, and protein-rich meals. It regulates blood glucose (sugar) levels in conjunction with other hormones and physiological processes. Glucagon prevents blood sugar from falling too low. The primary sugar present in the blood is glucose. One obtains glucose from the carbohydrates in the food one eats. This sugar gives the body's organs, muscles, and nervous system nutrients and serves as a significant energy source. Being the main source of energy for the brain, glucose is very significant.

The body typically has a sophisticated system in place to maintain optimal blood sugar levels. Glucagon functions as a hormone that mobilizes glucose, as opposed to insulin's action, which deposits glucose. According to these opposing actions, low plasma glucose concentrations are one of the most effective stimuli for glucagon secretion, while high plasma glucose concentrations stimulate insulin secretion from pancreatic beta cells. Therefore, the balanced secretion of insulin and glucagon from the pancreatic beta cells and alpha cells is a key factor in maintaining normal plasma glucose concentrations.

What Is The Function of Glucagon?

Normally, the body uses the hormones glucagon and insulin to regulate blood glucose (sugar) carefully. The pancreas produces more glucagon when the blood glucose levels drop too low (hypoglycemia) or start to trend lower. There are several ways that glucagon aids in blood glucose levels returning to normal.

  • The liver releases glucose (glycogen) that has been stored in the body after being converted by the hormone glucagon into a usable form. Glycogenolysis is the name of this process.

  • Additionally, glucagon can stop the liver from absorbing and storing glucose, allowing more glucose to remain in the blood.

  • Glucagon aids in the body's glucose production from other materials, such as amino acids.

  • The pancreas releases insulin to restore normal blood glucose levels if they start to rise.

What Tests Can Measure Glucagon Levels?

Glucagon-level tests are not frequently requested by medical professionals for patients with diabetes, but they might do so to help identify some uncommon endocrine conditions. Depending on the symptoms, the doctor may decide to have a blood test to check the glucagon levels. A medical professional will use a needle to take a blood sample from the vein during the test. Then it will be sent to a lab for analysis.

Based on the duration of the fasting period and blood glucose level, different laboratories may use different normal glucagon value ranges. A healthcare provider must be consulted if one has any concerns, and always compare the results to the reference range listed on the blood lab report. The normal range of glucagon concentrations in the blood is typically between 50 and 100 picograms per milliliter (pg/mL). One trillionth of a gram is a picogram.

What Diseases Are Associated With Dysfunctions Of Glucagon?

Diabetes patients may become incapable of releasing enough glucagon in response to falling blood glucose levels. As a result, if they take medication that may cause low blood sugars, especially synthetic insulin and drugs in the sulfonylurea class, they are more likely to develop low blood sugars. Glucagon levels in people with Type 2 diabetes could be higher than what would be considered normal based on blood glucose levels. This may result in higher blood sugar levels.

Issues with glucagon production unrelated to diabetes are rare and infrequent. The glucagon function may be impacted by or affected by the following circumstances:

  • Pancreatitis: Patients who experience pancreatic inflammation (pancreatitis) may encounter complications. Damage to the cells that produce glucagon and insulin is one of these. Diabetes can result from a lack of insulin. When taking synthetic insulin to treat pancreatitis-related diabetes, one runs a higher risk of experiencing low blood sugars because the pancreas cannot produce and release enough glucagon.

  • Glucagonoma: A very uncommon pancreatic tumor that secretes excessive amounts of glucagon. It results in a number of symptoms, such as high blood sugar, migratory necrotizing erythema, weight loss, mild diabetes, anemia, stomatitis, and a swollen tongue (glossitis).

  • Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia: It is a rare genetic disorder in which the pancreas and other endocrine system glands develop tumors simultaneously. The ability to produce glucagon may be impacted by this condition since pancreatic tumors are a possibility.

  • Liver Cirrhosis: The body replaces healthy liver tissue with scar tissue when one suffers from cirrhosis, a late-stage liver disease. The liver cannot function properly because of scar tissue. Cirrhosis may prevent the body's glucagon from functioning properly because the body stores a lot of glucose in the liver, which is released by glucagon. This may also apply to other uncommon liver conditions.

  • Side Effects of Pancreatectomy: People who require a pancreatectomy will lose a few or all of the cells that secrete glucagon and insulin, which may affect how well the body can use glucagon.

When to Consult a Doctor Regarding Glucagon Levels?

It is crucial to consult a healthcare provider if one has diabetes and frequently experiences low or high blood sugar levels. In people with diabetes, glucagon levels are typically not measured or monitored, but the doctor may need to change the way the patients take their medications or suggest lifestyle modifications to reduce both low and high blood sugar episodes. Even though other glucagon problems are uncommon, it is critical to identify the cause if one is experiencing symptoms.

Conclusion

Glucagon is a hormone that helps in controlling blood sugar levels. Even though non-diabetes-related problems with the body's production and utilization of glucagon are uncommon, it is necessary to consult a doctor and get the sugar levels monitored if one exhibits symptoms of low or high blood sugar.

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Dr. Nagaraj
Dr. Nagaraj

Diabetology

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