Your pancreas makes the hormone glucagon. While insulin works to reduce high levels of glucose in your bloodstream, glucagon helps prevent your blood glucose levels from becoming too low.
When glucose levels in your bloodstream drop, your pancreas releases glucagon. Once it’s in your bloodstream, glucagon stimulates the breakdown of glycogen, which your body stores in your liver. Glycogen breaks down into glucose, which goes into your bloodstream. This helps maintain normal blood glucose levels and cellular function.
Your doctor can use a glucagon test to measure the amount of glucagon in your bloodstream.
Glucagon is a hormone that helps regulate your blood glucose levels. If you have wide fluctuations in your blood glucose levels, you may have problems with glucagon regulation. For example, hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, may be a sign of abnormal glucagon levels.
If you have the following symptoms, your doctor may order a glucagon test:
- mild diabetes
- a skin rash known as necrolytic migratory erythema
- unexplained weight loss
These symptoms commonly occur with pancreatic disorders that cause an overproduction of glucagon. Given the unique specificity of these symptoms, doctors don’t routinely order glucagon tests as part of annual physical exams. In other words, your doctor will only order the test if they suspect you have problems with your glucagon regulation.
The glucagon test can help your doctor identify the presence of diseases that occur with excess glucagon production. Although diseases due to abnormal glucagon levels are rare, elevated levels are often associated with specific health issues.
For instance, elevated glucagon levels may be the result of a pancreatic tumor, called a glucagonoma. This type of tumor produces excess glucagon, which can cause you to develop diabetes. Other symptoms of a glucagonoma can include unexplained weight loss, necrolytic migratory erythema, and mild diabetes. If you have mild diabetes, your doctor can use the glucagon test to rule out the presence of glucagonoma as the cause of the disease.
Your doctor can also use the glucagon test measure your glucose control if you’ve developed type 2 diabetes or if you may be insulin resistant. If you have either of these conditions, your glucagon levels will likely be high. Effectively controlling your blood sugar levels will help you maintain normal levels of glucagon.
The glucagon test is a blood test. It carries minimal risks, which are common to all blood tests. These risks include:
- the need for multiple needle sticks if there’s difficulty obtaining a sample
- excessive bleeding at the needle site
- the accumulation of blood under your skin at the needle site, known as a hematoma
- infection at the needle site
You probably won’t need to do anything to prepare for the glucagon test. However, your doctor may advise you to fast beforehand depending on any health conditions you have and the purpose of the test. While fasting, you’ll need to abstain from food for a certain amount of time. For example, you may need to fast for eight to 12 hours before you give a blood sample.
Your doctor will perform this test on a blood sample. You’ll likely give a blood sample in a clinical setting, such as your doctor’s office. A healthcare provider will probably take the blood from a vein in your arm using a needle. They’ll collect it in a tube and send it to a lab for analysis. Once the results are available, your doctor can provide you with more information about the results and what they mean.
The normal glucagon level range is 50 to 100 picograms/milliliter. Normal value ranges can vary slightly from one lab to another, and different labs may use different measurements. Your doctor should consider the results of your glucagon test with other blood and diagnostic test results to make a formal diagnosis.
If your glucagon levels are abnormal, your doctor may perform other tests or evaluations to learn why. Once your doctor has diagnosed the cause, they can prescribe an appropriate treatment plan. Ask your doctor for more information about your specific diagnosis, treatment plan, and long-term outlook.