By Susan Klick, MSN, RN, CNL Diabetes Educator
The Liver is one of the most important organs in our body. It weighs about three pounds in an average adult, making it the largest internal organ in the human body. It has a central role in a number of processes, one of which is to help control glucose (sugar) balance in the blood. Today we will take a look at the liver’s role in controlling blood sugar.
When blood sugar levels are high, the liver will absorb some of the sugar and pack it into bundles called glycogen. These glycogen bundles fill up liver cells, so the liver is like a warehouse for excess sugar. The liver can then release the stored sugar (glycogen) when the body tells it to. Here are some examples:
The liver responds to stress by releasing stored glycogen, (the stored form of sugar). In this situation, the release of stored sugar is part of the body’s “fight or flight” response, which prepares the body with energy to respond quickly to a threat.
When we exercise, our muscles take up sugar, and the liver responds by releasing glycogen to replace the sugar that is being taken up and used by our muscles.
Normally the liver slows down its release of sugar into the blood if blood sugar is high. But in people with Type 2 diabetes, the pancreas may be producing too much of a hormone called glucagon. Glucagon’s job is to tell the liver to release sugar into the blood. If too much glucagon is being produced, then the liver is releasing too much sugar, keeping blood sugar levels high after meals and overnight.
Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas. Insulin’s job is to move sugar from the blood into the body’s cells. When you eat, a hormone in your gut tells your pancreas to start producing insulin. When you don’t eat (i.e. skips meals) there is little insulin being produced and therefore the liver will start releasing its’ stored glucose! The liver isn’t able to detect blood glucose levels; it only knows what insulin tells it. If there is a shortage of insulin, the liver assumes the body needs more sugar (even if blood sugar levels are already high). That is why some people with Type 2 diabetes will have high blood glucose levels even if they haven’t eaten, like first thing in the morning!
People with diabetes have reason to focus on liver health. Overweight people, particularly those who carry their weight around the middle, have the highest risk for liver problems. Losing weight, eating well and exercising are recommended for helping you to control blood sugars, and what you do to help your blood sugars is good for your liver too.