Are You Scared of Insulin? 6 Fears that are Really Myths
So many people with type 2 diabetes resist insulin treatment because it makes them feel scared or guilty. But hold on a minute. Taking insulin is not a sign of failure, an indication of weakness or something to fear. In fact, it may be the drug – a hormone really – that saves your life. Let me help you stop being scared of insulin. Read on for my take on 6 common fears of insulin.
Fear #1: I’ve failed at managing my diabetes.
No, needing insulin for blood glucose management is not a sign of personal failure. It’s not punishment for being “noncompliant” with your diet and exercise plan. If you need therapeutic insulin to manage your blood sugar levels, it’s because your pancreas isn’t making enough insulin to do the job right. A lot of people with type 2 diabetes will eventually need therapeutic insulin because type 2 diabetes tends to progress. Overtime, your pancreas makes less and less insulin, so you need some sort of hormone replacement. The longer you’ve had type 2 diabetes, the more likely you are to require therapeutic insulin. Stop blaming yourself. If you have to put blame somewhere, put it on your pancreas.
Fear #2: Insulin is forever.
It might be, but not necessarily. Sometimes people with type 2 diabetes take insulin for just a short time when they’re first diagnosed, during pregnancy, while taking other drugs that bump up blood sugar levels, or when their bodies are stressed during an illness or following surgery.
You might also stop taking insulin or another diabetes drug if you lose weight and improve your diet. This really depends on how much weight you lose and the ability of your pancreas is to make insulin.
For more about blood sugar, check out Diabetes Blood Sugar Basics.
Fear #3: Insulin will make me gain weight.
Maybe. At least initially. If your blood sugar levels have been sky-high, you’ve been losing sugar in your urine instead of getting it into your cells where it belongs. So you’ve been flushing calories down the toilet. But with the right amount of insulin onboard, that blood sugar does what it’s supposed to do – it gets used as energy or stored for later use.
And if previous high blood sugars dehydrated you – you know, all those extra trips to the bathroom – proper fluid balance with blood sugar control might elevate the number on the scale by a couple pounds.
Good news: It’s not impossible to maintain or even lose weight while taking insulin. I’ve seen plenty of people do it. Ask for a referral to see a registered dietitian nutritionist who is also a certified diabetes educator.
Fear #4: Insulin hurts.
This is the easiest fear to get over because you’ll quickly find that the needles are very small and very fine. So many people tell me that insulin injections are way less painful than the finger sticks they take to measure their blood sugar levels. So if you’re scared of insulin injections, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Fear #5: Insulin causes severe low blood sugar.
Yes, it can. But just because it can doesn’t mean that it will. Though low blood sugar (aka hypoglycemia) can happen to anyone taking insulin and even some other diabetes medications, the elderly are most likely to experience blood sugar levels below 70 mg/dl. Everyone who takes insulin or any medication with the side effect of hypoglycemia needs to recognize the symptoms of hypoglycemia and know how to treat it.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia
The symptoms of hypoglycemia are varied and include shakiness, dizziness, sweating, confusion, anxiousness, irritability, rapid heartbeat, lack of coordination or even loss of consciousness. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all. Learn more at the website of the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
Causes of hypoglycemia
Some of the reasons your blood sugar level may go too low are these:
- taking too much insulin (or other medication that has low blood sugar as a side effect)
- skipping a meal
- eating too little carbohydrate
- drinking alcohol without eating adequate carbohydrate
- being more physically active than usual
- losing weight or changing your diet without proper medication adjustments
The best way to prevent hypoglycemia is to follow your treatment plan and to measure your blood sugar often to learn how it responds to various foods, amounts of food, exercise and medications.
Here’s where you can learn how food affects your blood sugar.
Treatment for hypoglycemia
Typically, you can treat mild and moderate hypoglycemia yourself by strategically eating carbohydrate according to the rule of 15. Discuss this with your healthcare team.
Treat hypoglycemia with the rule of 15
- Consume 15 grams of carbohydrate. Try these:
- glucose tablets or gel
- 1 tablespoon of honey or sugar
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces) fruit juice
- 1 cup nonfat milk
- Sit quietly for 15 minutes. Measure your blood sugar again.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2 until your blood sugar is above 70 mg/dl.
Glucose tablets or gel are ideal because they work quickly and have minimal calories.
If your hypoglycemia is so severe that you cannot treat yourself, a friend or family member will need to give you an injection of glucagon. If you’re at risk for hypoglycemia discuss this with your healthcare provider and ask if you need to carry a glucagon pen.
Hypoglycemia is a real problem, but it is manageable. There are ways to lower your risks associated with hypoglycemia. Talk to a certified diabetes educator to work out your individualized hypoglycemia prevention and treatment plans.
One of the most helpful tools for managing blood sugar levels is carbohydrate counting. Here are the basics to counting carbs.
Fear #6: Insulin causes complications of diabetes.
Vision problems, kidney damage and nerve problems did NOT come about because of taking insulin. These problems are the result of having high blood sugar levels for a long time. Insulin may be just the additional tool necessary to help you prevent complications or to halt their progression.
Instead of worrying or simply being afraid of insulin, talk to your diabetes management team. Get your questions answered. Therapeutic insulin may help you manage your diabetes better and lead a more full and active life. And that’s nothing to be scared of!
Cheers to no longer being scared of insulin!
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND, is a Nutrition, Culinary & Diabetes Expert, Wellcoach®-certified health and wellness coach, Freelance Writer, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator. She's also the author of four books, including a best-seller. She's a nationally-recognized media expert in high demand for print and online interviews, as well as corporate and one-on-one nutritional counseling. Jill's philosophy is that nutrition science should be understandable, realistic and oh so delicious.
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Like most of my patients and clients, I lead a busy life. You probably do too. Fortunately, you don’t need weeks, days or even hours to start living better and healthier. This blog offers timesaving strategies and bite-sized nutrition and health information. Come by often for tips and inspiration to healthy living – no matter how busy you are. I am a registered dietitian nutritionist offering credible, practical nutrition advice to keep busy people healthy. Yes indeed, we can be both busy and healthy.