Learning about glucagon

Estée van Lingen tells you everything that you need to know about glucagon, the hormone that raises blood glucose to treat a low in diabetes.

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Most of you have heard about insulin and know what its function is in the body. But how many know what glucagon is and what it does?

What is glucagon?

Your body normally has a complex system to make sure your blood glucose is at optimum levels. If you have too much or too little glucose in the blood, it can cause certain symptoms and complications and in cases of people with diabetes, it can also be life-threatening.

Glucagon is a natural hormone that your pancreas makes that works with other hormones (like insulin) and bodily functions to help regulate your blood glucose levels.

Why is this important and how does it work?

Hormones are chemicals that co-ordinate different functions in your body by carrying messages through your blood to your organs, skin, muscles and other tissues. These signals tell your body what to do and when to do it.

Your pancreas is a glandular organ in your abdomen that secretes several enzymes to help with digestion and several hormones, including glucagon and insulin. It’s surrounded by your stomach, intestines and other organs.

Glucose is the main sugar found in the blood. You get glucose from carbohydrates in the food you eat. This sugar is an important source of energy and provides nutrients to your body’s organs, muscles and nervous system. Glucose is essential because it’s the primary source of energy for the brain.

Glucagon increases your blood glucose to prevent it from dropping too low (hypoglycaemia), whereas insulin, another hormone produced by the pancreas, decreases blood glucose levels. The alpha cells in your pancreas make glucagon and release it in response to a drop-in blood glucose, prolonged fasting, exercise and protein-rich meals.

How does it do this?

Glucagon helps blood glucose levels rise back up in multiple ways, including:

  • Glucagon triggers the liver to convert stored glucose (glycogen) into a usable form and then release it into the bloodstream. This process is called glycogenolysis
  • Glucagon can also prevent your liver from taking in and storing glucose so that more glucose stays in the blood.
  • Glucagon helps your body make glucose from other sources, such as amino acids (protein building blocks).

If your blood glucose levels trend higher, your pancreas releases insulin to bring it back into range.

What is the difference between glucagon and insulin?

Glucagon and insulin are both important hormones that play essential roles in regulating your blood glucose. Both hormones come from your pancreas: alpha cells in your pancreas make and release glucagon and beta cells in your pancreas make and release insulin.

The difference is in how these hormones contribute to blood glucose regulation. Glucagon increases blood glucose levels, whereas insulin decreases blood glucose levels. If your pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin or your body doesn’t use it properly, you can have high blood glucose (hyperglycaemia) which can then lead to diabetes, if left untreated.

What tests check glucagon levels and what are normal levels?

Healthcare providers don’t typically order glucagon level tests for people with diabetes, but they may order tests to help diagnose some rare endocrine conditions.

Your healthcare provider may order glucagon blood tests to measure your glucagon levels if you’re having certain symptoms. During the test, a provider will draw a blood sample and send it to the lab for testing.

Normal value ranges can vary from lab to lab and depending on the duration of fasting and blood glucose levels. Always compare your results to the reference given on your blood lab report and talk to your healthcare provider if you have questions.

What conditions are related to glucagon function?

People with diabetes can develop an inability to release enough glucagon in response to decreasing blood glucose levels. Because of this, they’re more likely to develop frequently low or severely low blood glucose if they take medication that could cause low blood glucose, especially synthetic insulin and certain medications.

People with Type 2 diabetes may have glucagon levels that are relatively higher than what would be considered normal, based on blood glucose levels. This can contribute to higher blood glucose.

What are the symptoms of glucagon-related conditions?

Depending on the situation and condition, you can experience low and/or high blood glucose from abnormal glucagon levels.

Symptoms of low blood glucose (hypoglycaemia)

  • Shaking or trembling
  • Sweating or chills
  • Dizziness and light-headedness
  • Faster heart rate
  • Hunger
  • Confusion or trouble concentrating
  • Nervousness or irritability
  • Pale skin
  • Weakness
  • Tingling or numbness in your face/ mouth

If you experience these symptoms, it’s important to eat food with carbohydrates/sugar to treat it and bring your glucose levels up, and after that make sure you consume a healthy balanced meal. If this happens often, contact your healthcare provider.

Symptoms of high blood glucose (hyperglycaemia)

Not necessarily always caused by glucagon problems but more by not enough insulin or the body not being sensitive to insulin.

  • Increased thirst and/or hunger
  • Blurred vision
  • Frequent urination
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (feeling weak and tired)
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Slow healing cuts and wounds

If you experience these symptoms, it’s important to see your healthcare provider.

When should you see your healthcare provider about glucagon levels?

If you have diabetes and are experiencing frequent episodes of low or high blood glucose, it’s important to contact your healthcare provider. Glucagon levels are not normally tested in people living with diabetes, but your provider might need to adjust medications.

While other glucagon issues are rare, if you are having symptoms, its essential to figure out the cause by talking to your healthcare provider.

Estée van Lingen is a registered dietitian practicing in Randburg and Fourways, Gauteng. She has been in private practice since 2014 and is registered with the HPCSA as well as ADSA and served on the ADSA Gauteng South Committee for 2020 – 2022.


Estée van Lingen is a registered dietitian practicing in Randburg and Fourways, Gauteng. She has been in private practice since 2014 and is registered with the HPCSA as well as ADSA and served on the ADSA Gauteng South Committee for 2020 – 2022.

Header image by FreePik


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