Can Insulin Be Taken Orally? Here’s What You Need to Know!

Posted December 14, 2020 by Michael Chamberlain - See Editorial Guidelines

We are often asked the question – can insulin be taken orally. So we thought we’d provide some insight into whether it can, what happens, along with a look at the potential alternatives.

But before we dive into the details, here’s the quick answer.

Can insulin be taken orally? Insulin cannot be taken orally. Insulin is a polypeptide protein and will be broken down by the proteolytic enzymes and other gastric juices in the digestive tract when taken orally. When it reaches the blood, it will be a single peptide and unable to lower blood sugar, with only 1% bioavailability.

So, if you cannot take insulin orally, how should insulin be taken in order to be effective? Let’s explore this further.

How Should Insulin be Administered to be Effective?

Can Insulin Be Taken Orally

Diabetes is a disease that occurs when your blood glucose, also called blood sugar, is too high.

What happens in diabetes is either your pancreas doesn’t produce insulin at all, or the insulin produced is inadequate (meaning additional insulin is required). Any additional insulin has to be introduced into the bloodstream to prevent glucose from building up in the blood further.

This is why those with type 1 diabetes and some with type 2 diabetes must be treated with insulin.

As such, the sole purpose of insulin is to move blood sugar, known as glucose, from your blood into your cells. So, for insulin to do its job properly, it must be in the bloodstream.

Therefore, the fastest possible route into the body that will lead to absorption into the bloodstream is what is beneficial for insulin.

As the food we eat is taken orally, why doesn’t insulin work the same way when ingested? Let’s look at that next.

How Insulin Reacts if Taken Orally?

We’ve outlined the simplest explanation as to why you cannot orally take insulin to any effect.

When you take insulin orally, the whole focus of insulin more easily reaching the bloodstream becomes a broken chain.

Compounds in the stomach and the digestive process work to break down whatever has been consumed. As a result, the real effectiveness, potency, or efficacy of insulin will not be fully delivered.

Ultimately, when insulin is taken orally is becomes ineffective, which will result in elevated blood sugar levels. This is why insulin must be injected.

How the Digestive System Prevents Taking Insulin Orally

Getting into greater detail, the digestive tract is designed to break down food particles, thereby facilitating digestion. This means that the digestive tract has enzymes specialized in breaking down whatever comes through this pathway.

Although this design and process support healthy digestion, unfortunately, these enzymes and how they function are the same reason why insulin does not work when taken orally. 

Insulin is a fragile hormone and a polypeptide protein that would break down in the digestive tract when taken orally.

So, while this breakdown happens and the medication reaches the small intestine, which is actually where it’s absorbed to the body and the blood, it’s simply too late. 

Along with the breakdown process supported by proteolytic enzymes, insulin also becomes decomposed within the stomach’s gastric juices.

By the time insulin reaches the blood, it will only consist of a single peptide and no longer able to function in regulating blood glucose.

What happens if you take insulin orally?

If you’re considering what happens if you take insulin orally, then let’s refer to an incident in which this occurred.

The known case is of a 51-year-old man who intentionally took three 10-ml vials of various insulin types, totaling 3000 units taken orally. He took one vial each of Aspart, Lispro, and Glargine.

This resulted in him experiencing four symptomatic hypoglycemic episodes, with blood glucose levels of 48, 25, 34, and 40 mg/dl. These episodes occurred after 1, 3, 4, and five hours after taking insulin orally. The reason for hypoglycemia was not backed up by anything except for taking massive ingestion of insulin.

After observation, the patient returned to a normal blood glucose level within 24 hours without any additional hypoglycemic episodes. 

The finding concluded that despite the bioavailability of insulin taken orally is 1% when ingested in large quantities, it may produce hypoglycemia episodes.

So, can insulin be taken orally? If you take massive amounts of insulin units orally, as in the case discussed above, it may result in hypoglycemia which can be life-threatening.

The important message to note here is not to take insulin orally under any circumstances.

Alternatives to Taking Insulin Orally

Can Insulin Be Taken Orally

Active research is still ongoing with regards to developing insulin that doesn’t require any form of injection. The aim is to develop insulin that can be taken orally to negate the discomfort of needle sticks every day, which can be painful.

We also have an article on the Pros and Cons of insulin pumps for your research regarding insulin delivery.

However, there are a few inhaled forms of insulin, that don’t require injecting. Here’s a breakdown of the insulin products that are (or were previously) available on the market.

Previously Available Inhaled Insulin

Exubera was the first-ever inhaled insulin that came on to the market. This was the first FDA-approved inhaled insulin that became available in September 2006.

Unfortunately, it only stayed on the market between 2006 and 2007. The manufacturer withdrew Exubera from the market because of poor sales.

Poor sales came from having an expensive price tag, and it did not provide the expected results, certainly not anything like results obtained from injectable insulin. 

Apart from this, the insulin was too big and clunky, with many users finding it difficult to manage.

However, later, the FDA was concerned that Exubera might cause lung problems, including cancer.

Inhaled Insulin Available Today 

In June 2014, the FDA approved Afrezza, again an inhaled insulin. This is an inhaler that comes with pre-measured rapid-acting insulin doses.

You use this type of insulin before meals. Afrezza starts working faster than many injected insulins, but there are limited doses available. This can make it difficult for some individuals that are not consistent with their everyday meals.

The convenience of this type of inhaled insulin can be encouraging for many users and can provide some relief from constant needle sticks.

So, with limited options, will there ever be an alternative and optimized delivery method for insulin?

Future Possibilities to Take Insulin Orally

An MIT-led research team has so far managed to develop a drug capsule that is believed to help deliver oral doses of insulin (i.e., helps in taking insulin orally).

This has the potential to replace the need for patients to take injectable insulins every day. The capsule is about the size of a blueberry and contains a small needle, which is made of compressed insulin.

After orally taking the capsule, and it reaches the stomach, the insulin is then injected.

Animal tests show that this capsule can deliver enough insulin to match the efficacy in lowering blood sugar levels as those by injections given through skin.

Not only that, but the device can also be adapted to deliver other protein drugs.

Also see our article on the different types of insulin.

Conclusion

For now, it seems that those with diabetes may need to wait for a while longer before a more comfortable way of treating diabetes emerges. For more questions and advice about treating your condition appropriately, consult your healthcare provider.

If you’re having trouble affording any of your medications, then Prescription Hope may be able to help. Enroll with us and see if you qualify to pay only $50 a month for each of your medications.



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