Understanding insulin types for better control

Insulin is a daily life-saver for millions of those with diabetes. But how does it work? What do all the different types mean? How do you know which insulin is right for you? Your doctor can explain in detail, but this quick primer can get you up to speed on the basics of insulin types.

Understanding insulin terms

In order to understand the intricacies of insulin, it is important to understand the terms first. Here is a quick primer of helpful definitions:

  1. The onset is how long it takes for the insulin to start working after you take the injection.
  2. The peak is when the insulin is working the hardest to lower your blood sugar levels.
  3. The duration is how long the insulin keeps lowering your glucose.

Depending upon your personal needs, your doctor might prescribe insulin that has a different onsets, peaks and durations. For instance, you might take a longer onset insulin in the mornings, then take shorter onset insulin with meals.

Various insulin types

There are several types of insulin on the market today. Each of these has a different function in your body.

  1. Rapid-acting. This insulin onsets within 15 minutes, peaks by the 90-minute mark and lasts for 3-5 hours. It is usually taken with meals.
  2. Short-acting. This insulin has an onset of 30 to 60 minutes, a peak at 2-4 hours and a duration of 5-8 hours. This is best taken with meals.
  3. Intermediate-acting. This insulin has an onset time of 1-3 hours, a peak at 8 hours and a duration of 12-16 hours. This is often used for overnight dosing.
  4. Long-acting. This insulin onsets within an hour and has a duration of 20-26 hours. There is no peak; rather, this insulin is designed to work steadily throughout the day.
  5. Pre-mixed. All of the above types of insulin can be mixed together to achieve different results and tighter control.

Which insulin type is on your prescription?

Not sure which insulin you are taking? Let's look at the names of the insulin types:

  1. Rapid-acting includes NovoLog, Humalog and Apridra.
  2. Short-acting includes Humulin R and Novolin R.
  3. Intermediate-acting include Humulin N and Novolin N.
  4. Long-acting includes Levemir and Lantus.
  5. Pre-mixed includes a percentage of NovoLog, Humulin, Novolin or Humalog.

To avoid mistakes with dosing, it is vitally important to understand what each insulin does and the appropriate time of day to take it. Speak with your doctor or diabetes educator to learn exactly what you are taking and how it may affect your blood sugar levels.

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