Beta cells are cells in the pancreas. They are found in groups called islets. Beta cells create insulin, a hormone that regulates your blood glucose levels.
When your blood glucose levels increase, your beta cells respond by producing and secreting more stored insulin. Insulin helps specific cells absorb glucose from your blood and convert it into glycogen (a stored form of sugar).
Glycogen is stored in your liver and muscle tissues. When you need energy in between meals, glycogen is broken down into glucose and released.
Beta cells also release amylin, a hormone that slows the rate of glucose entering the bloodstream and thus helps to reduce extreme spikes in your blood glucose levels after you eat.
Amylin also slows gastric emptying and plays a role in helping you feel full or satisfied (sated) after a meal.
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where your body’s immune system destroys most of your beta cells.
As a result, your body secretes too little insulin, making it difficult for your body to process glucose. This means that glucose from the food you eat cannot enter your cells. This leads to increased blood glucose levels.
Type 2 diabetes
With type 2 diabetes, your beta cells can produce insulin, but your body’s cells develop a resistance to insulin. This means that cells are slow to absorb glucose from the bloodstream and convert it into glycogen.
Because of this irregularity, your beta cells might have to work harder to produce enough insulin to regulate your blood glucose levels. As your diabetes progresses, your overworked beta cells might not be able to function effectively, which means your body eventually may be unable to produce enough insulin.
An insulinoma is a tumor in the pancreas, typically derived from beta cells. Most insulinomas are benign (noncancerous).
Beta cells detect when your blood sugar levels are low. In response, they stop creating insulin. This keeps your blood sugar levels stable.
Insulinomas produce excess insulin, even when your blood glucose levels are low and your cells have absorbed sugar.
When your body creates too much insulin, you can develop dangerously low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia).
Surgery is usually required to remove insulinomas.
Secretagogues are medications that stimulate the beta cells to make and release insulin, thus lowering blood glucose concentrations. They may be used to treat type 2 diabetes.
Secretagogues include sulfonylureas and meglitinides.
If your beta cell function has been compromised or if you have conditions affecting your liver or kidneys, secretagogues may not be suitable for you.
Other medications can be used to treat type 2 diabetes in people who have lost beta cell function.
Beta cells are unable to function properly (fail) when they’re overworked or when they’re unable to sense blood glucose levels. Typically, beta cells detect high blood glucose levels, and they work quickly to produce and release insulin to lower those levels.
If blood glucose levels are consistently (chronically) high, beta cells may become overworked. They may also not respond when blood glucose levels are elevated, which means they will not release enough insulin.
Yes, beta cells can regenerate. But this does not mean that your body can automatically replenish (replace) lost or low-functioning beta cells.
Researchers are exploring beta cell replenishing methods like transplantation or
These methods are still in the early stages of development. It’s not clear if or when there will be a safe, effective way to induce the regeneration of beta cells.
In the pancreas, alpha cells store and release glucagon whereas beta cells produce and release insulin. Both alpha cells and beta cells play an essential role in keeping your blood glucose levels stable and helping your body use glucose effectively.
Glucagon is not to be confused with glycogen, which is a stored form of sugar.
About 4 to 6 hours after you eat, your blood glucose levels decrease. This triggers the alpha cells to produce glucagon.
Glucagon stimulates liver and muscle cells to convert the glycogen back into glucose. This glucose enters the bloodstream so that your body can use it for energy.
Together, insulin and glucagon work to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
To learn more about pancreatic beta cells, diabetes, and insulin, visit the American Diabetes Association, the World Diabetes Foundation, and the
Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.