How is the Endocrine System Related to Diabetes?

Written By: Care New England on July 28, 2021

Diabetes is the most common endocrine disorder in the United States, with over 10% of Americans struggling with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. But what exactly is an endocrine disorder, and how is the endocrine system related to diabetes?

Quite simply, diabetes occurs when the pancreas cannot release the normal regulatory hormones, or when the body cannot respond properly to those hormones. The result is an inability to regulate blood sugar levels, which can cause serious and wide-reaching symptoms. To understand how this happens, we first have to understand how the pancreas functions in a healthy endocrine system.

What is the Endocrine System?

The endocrine system consists of all the glands in your body that secrete hormones. This includes, among others, the pituitary gland in the brain, which regulates growth; the ovaries and testes, which control the reproduction and secondary sex characteristics; and the pancreas, which regulates blood sugar and metabolism.

How does the endocrine system work?

Although the glands and hormones that comprise the endocrine system are diverse, they share one goal: to maintain homeostasis or a stable and balanced condition inside the body. The endocrine system works together with the nervous and immune systems to sense changes in your body's condition and return things to normal. To do this, it releases hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones travel through the bloodstream to other organs and tissues, where they influence cells to behave differently.

Understanding the endocrine system: How does the pancreas work?

It's easiest to understand endocrine regulation through an example. Imagine you've just eaten an apple. By eating the apple, you've unknowingly caused huge physiological changes in your body. For instance, digesting the sugars from the fruit increases your body's level of glucose, a sugar molecule that provides quick energy for cells.

Although glucose is useful, too much is harmful. Hyperglycemia, or an abnormally high concentration of glucose in the blood, causes symptoms ranging from thirst and vomiting to coma and death if left untreated. To prevent these outcomes, your body needs to store any glucose that isn't used immediately as a longer-term form of energy. That's where the pancreas comes in.

The pancreas senses when there is extra glucose in the blood and releases insulin, a hormone that helps cells either use up or store the energy from the apple. Once the body has extracted all the energy possible, blood glucose levels decrease, signaling the pancreas to stop releasing so much insulin. This cycle plays out every time we eat, keeping our body properly fueled.

For people with diabetes, however, this key regulatory process doesn't work as it should.

How is the Endocrine System Related to Diabetes?

In a person with diabetes, the pancreas either cannot create any insulin or cannot create enough insulin to regulate blood sugar.  Without insulin, the body cannot use glucose as a source of energy. To replace the energy normally gained from glucose, the body must break down fat instead, causing a buildup of a toxic byproduct known as ketones. Eventually, this results in diabetic ketoacidosis—a life-threatening condition in which excess ketones make the blood too acidic.

What is the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes?

Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are caused by problems with insulin production or response and are, as a result, inextricably linked to the endocrine system. The difference is in the type and cause of the malfunction:

  • Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks its own endocrine system. Over time, the pancreas loses all of its insulin-producing cells, and the patient becomes fully reliant on synthetic insulin to manage their blood glucose.
  • Type 2 Diabetes develops over a longer period of time when the body becomes resistant to insulin. As this resistance builds, the pancreas must work harder and harder to meet the body's demand for insulin until it can no longer keep up.

A patient with Type 2 diabetes may be able to help their pancreas regulate their blood sugar through exercise and diet. However, people with Type 1 diabetes are completely unable to produce insulin, so they must essentially act as their own pancreas by monitoring their blood glucose and administering enough insulin to cope with any changes.

Get Help With Diabetes

The invention of synthetic insulin has transformed diabetes from a death sentence into a completely survivable condition. With proper management, you can compensate for the endocrine dysfunction that diabetes has caused. To learn how to take control of your Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, contact us today.

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