Most of us have heard of diabetes and for many the way they manage their diabetes is through injecting insulin.  Both type 1 and some type 2 diabetics will be on a course of insulin, but how many different kinds of insulin are out there, and is the newest option always better?

As someone who’s been diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic for over twenty years I’ve had the chance to try out many different forms on insulin and their versions.  In fact I’ve tried all basic types of insulin, and have my own opinions on which are best, but the amount of insulins out there can be confusing, some are long-acting and stay in the body for several hours, while others are short-acting, and yet others are intermediate which means they last somewhere in between the two.  There are lots of forms of insulin but they all come down to three basic types: animal, human and analogue.

Animal Insulin

This form of insulin was the first to ever be invented for use in humans.  It is extracted from the pancreases of dead animals (cows and pigs) which are part of the meat industry.  The insulin is purified and was the only insulin available for humans to inject until the 1980s.

Pros – Some people who are allergic to synthetic type insulins do not suffer an allergic reaction to animal insulin.  People do not suffer a loss of hypo awareness with animal insulin.  Some people feel generally ‘better’ and ‘themselves’ with animal insulin.

Cons – Animal insulins have a peak which can be difficult to control for some people.  They are not easily available these days with only one manufacturer in the UK still making them (and bovine/beef insulin is now being withdrawn).  Originally animal insulin used to cause allergic reactions at injection sites but this no longer happens with increased purifying techniques.

Human Insulin

This form is not called human because it comes from humans but rather because it was said to mimic human insulin as closely as possible.  It was the first synthetically made insulin created in a lab.  A lot of animal pancreases were needed to supply animal insulin but human was synthetic and could be grown in the lab using part of the E-coli bacteria.

Pros – Supposedly mimicking insulin naturally found in the human body it was easily available as an alternative to animal insulin which may have caused some allergic reactions at injection sites (in the past).  It was cheap to create and therefore easy to distribute at low cost.  Most human insulins were very similar in their action times to animal insulins.

Cons – Many people lose their signs of hypo awareness.  Some others felt different like they are ‘not themselves’, behavioural or mood changes.

Analogue Insulin

Analogue insulins are the newest form currently available and are human insulins which have not only been grown in the lab but have then been genetically modified to create better action times or either longer or shorter duration in the body.

Pros – Many analogues (long-acting) have flat action rather than peaks making risk of hypos especially at night less likely, this also makes them last longer than equivalent animal/human insulins often leading to less injections in a day.  Other short acting analogues are made to react faster in the body which makes them bring blood sugars down after eating quickly to create better overall sugar control.

Cons – Some people report losing hypo warning signs.  Other’s report feeling ‘not themselves’, behavioural and mood changes.  Both long-acting and short-acting types of analogue insulins are clear (rather than one being cloudy in colour) making it easier to accidently mix the two up prior to injecting.

These are the three basic types of insulin however there are plenty of different insulins available within these three types.  Long-acting (often called basal) insulins are for injecting once or twice a day to keep blood sugars stable throughout the day.  And short-acting (often called bolus) insulins are injected by diabetics whenever they eat a meal of carbohydrates to help bring down the spike in blood sugar that eating carbohydrate food will cause (rapid acting insulins are also used for this purpose).  Other types include even longer acting types, or mixes of both to be injected only twice a day.

Is one insulin better than another?

Throughout history doctors have pushed diabetic patients to use the newer insulins that are available, regardless of whether their diabetic control is already good or not.  Newer insulins of course always look like the better option especially the recent push to analogues which have flat and quick reacting times which should make diabetes blood sugar management more easy.

However we mustn’t ignore the fact that for many, the newer forms of inulin have a negative effect on their bodies.  The reported side effects of synthetic insulins, both human and analogue, may only be experienced by a minority of the diabetic population, but the side effects are usually severe enough to make individual people unable to live their lives.

My own experience with analogue insulins

My diabetes control was not good for a long time taking human insulins which I had taken for about 10 years.  I was then encouraged by my diabetic physician to go onto analogue insulins.  The first day of trying analogues I had a severe reaction to the background analogue.  I had a severe hypo and even after the hypo had subsided for a long time, I suffered uncontrollable shaking and I felt my entire body was vibrating inside.  This did not wear off until the insulin had left my system.

A few weeks later I was given another form of background analogue insulin and this time I did not have a severe shaking reaction.  However this did not mean I did not suffer side effects.  It took a few months for me to become fully aware of the side effects but I suffered severe ones.  I lost my hypo awareness signs which meant I did not know when my blood sugar was severely low.  This was dangerous as I’d be walking around perfectly happy to do nothing about it and I nearly collapsed several times due to not knowing I was in a hypo until I took a physical blood test.

The second side effects were the most disturbing.  In the course of several months, close to a year, on analogue insulins I became apathetic to life.  The world seemed void of colour and I felt distant from it.  I found no joy in doing anything and felt like if I stood in the middle of the road, cars would pass through me because I wasn’t real.   I was almost suicidal in that I didn’t care about living or the future and I constantly dared myself to stand in the middle of a busy road or do something else like jump in front of a train.

I eventually shared my messed up thoughts with a family member who went above and beyond to research into it and found out that animal insulin could be the answer.  It was and with some pushing to make the doctors cooperate, I now take animal insulin and no longer feel suicidal in that way and the world feels colourful and I have hypo awareness once more (I will share more on this in a future post).

Insulin type should be a choice

For many what I experienced will never happen to you and if someone is happy with their insulin type, especially if it’s the newer form then I’m happy and encourage them to continue with their treatment.  However with every new form of insulin, the pharmaceutical companies who manufacture it always push people to use the latest type and doctors are often misinformed as to what is available and what isn’t.

Insulin type, whichever you want to use, should be a choice.  The governments around the world should continue to push pharmaceutical companies to make all insulins available for everyone who needs them, regardless of how old a type of insulin is.  People should have a choice, doctors should help people to get the best treatment that helps them.

At the end of the day, we should all have a choice in what insulins and prescription drugs we want to use in our own bodies.

Are you diabetic or know someone who is?  What do you think about insulin types and choices we have?  Let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below 🙂