Evidence Based
4.6 /5
0

Glucagon: High & Low Levels + Normal Range

Written by Helen Quach, BS (Biochemistry) | Reviewed by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Last updated:
Medically reviewed by
Jonathan Ritter, PharmD, PhD (Pharmacology) | Written by Helen Quach, BS (Biochemistry) | Reviewed by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Last updated:

SelfHacked has the strictest sourcing guidelines in the health industry and we almost exclusively link to medically peer-reviewed studies, usually on PubMed. We believe that the most accurate information is found directly in the scientific source.

We are dedicated to providing the most scientifically valid, unbiased, and comprehensive information on any given topic.

Our team comprises of trained MDs, PhDs, pharmacists, qualified scientists, and certified health and wellness specialists.

Our science team goes through the strictest vetting process in the health industry and we often reject applicants who have written articles for many of the largest health websites that are deemed trustworthy. Our science team must pass long technical science tests, difficult logical reasoning and reading comprehension tests. They are continually monitored by our internal peer-review process and if we see anyone making material science errors, we don't let them write for us again.

Our goal is to not have a single piece of inaccurate information on this website. If you feel that any of our content is inaccurate, out-of-date, or otherwise questionable, please leave a comment or contact us at [email protected]

Note that each number in parentheses [1, 2, 3, etc.] is a clickable link to peer-reviewed scientific studies. A plus sign next to the number “[1+, 2+, etc...]” means that the information is found within the full scientific study rather than the abstract.

Glucagon levels

Glucagon was long seen as a metabolic villain, insulin’s “bad” counterpart. It raises blood sugar levels and ensures they don’t drop too low. But scientists recently realized that it also increases satiety and helps burn fats. Abnormal glucagon levels can point to pancreas inflammation, liver disease, or diabetes. Keep reading understand the effects of glucagon and what high or low glucagon levels mean.

What is Glucagon?

Glucagon is a hormone that helps maintain glucose balance in the body. When glucose levels are low, the pancreas releases glucagon to increase glucose release. When glucose is high, the pancreases stops glucagon release [1, 2, 3].

Glucagon and insulin are like the yin and yang of the pancreas – one counters and balances the effects of the other. While insulin ensures blood sugar doesn’t spike too high, glucagon ensures it doesn’t drop too low.

Glucagon release is also influenced by the nervous system, amino acids, free fatty acids, and other hormones [4].

Glucagon is usually measured when a person shows symptoms of:

  • Diabetes [4]
  • Low blood sugar [4]
  • Liver disease and scarring (cirrhosis) [5, 6]
  • Pancreas inflammation (pancreatitis) [7]
  • An inherited disorder called Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1, which causes endocrine gland tumors [8]
  • Glucagonoma, a tumor in the pancreas that secretes glucagon [9]

Glucagon has some important functions in the body. For a long time, glucagon was considered insulin’s “bad” counterpart. But aside from increasing blood sugar, glucagon also acts to [10]:

  • Burn fats and reduce fat stores
  • Increase energy use
  • Balance food intake
  • Increase satiety
  • Reduce the production of bile acids

Normal Range

Glucagon normally ranges from 25 – 150 pg/ml [4].

Causes of Low Glucagon Levels

1) Diabetes

Normally, when glucose levels drop, insulin drops as well, which causes glucagon to rise. When glucose levels increase after a meal, insulin spikes and glucagon release stops [11, 4].

In diabetes, the response of the pancreas is completely opposite to what it should be in healthy people. That’s why diabetes can cause both low and high glucagon.

A damaged pancreas in type 1 or advanced type 2 diabetes can’t lower insulin levels in response to low blood glucose, and glucagon remains low. After a meal, though, when glucose levels spike, the pancreas can’t increase insulin, and glucagon levels rise [11].

Low glucagon and very low glucose levels (hypoglycemia) can be dangerous. The brain needs glucose to function while having low glucose and low glucagon increases the risk of brain damage or impairment [11, 12].

2) Weight Loss

Weight loss due to diet or gastric bypass surgery decreases glucagon levels. It lowers glucagon and improves insulin resistance, which may help people who were obese restore sugar levels. But low glucagon may increase hunger and cause people to gradually regain weight after the weight-loss intervention, although this is still uncertain [2].

3) Pancreas Removal Surgery

Since the pancreas makes glucagon, pancreas removal surgery (pancreatectomy) can cause glucagon deficiency [13].

Causes of High Glucagon Levels

1) Stress

Stress causes the pancreas to release more glucagon (and less insulin), which increases glucose levels. Glucagon may among the main triggers of high glucose levels in people under stress who never had diabetes [14].

Similarly, insulin resistance and high-stress hormones (including cortisol and epinephrine) also increase glucagon and blood glucose [14].

In people suffering from serious health problems, high glucagon and glucose levels triggered by stress can cause health complications and increase the risk of disability [14].

2) High-Protein Diets

High-protein and low-carb diets can increase fasting glucagon levels by ~35% [15].

High protein diets also increase insulin, a rare case when both glucagon and insulin are increased. This is because insulin and glucagon both tell the liver to make more glucose from non-carb sources (such as amino acids), while glucagon also maintains glucose blood levels [15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20].

High-protein diets are ok in the short run but may contribute insulin resistance in some people in the long-run [21].

3) Fasting

Prolonged fasting can increase glucagon. In one study, glucagon blood levels rose twofold on the 3rd day of fasting and then slightly declined over the next 6 weeks. Insulin levels decreased [22].

4) Low Insulin

In healthy people, low blood sugar will cause the pancreas to release more glucagon (and less insulin) [23].

In people with advanced diabetes, the opposite happens. When glucose levels spike after a meal, glucagon levels increase because the pancreas can’t release enough insulin [11].

5) Liver Disease and Scarring

People with liver disease and liver scarring (cirrhosis) have high glucagon levels. Glucagon increases even more in people with liver disease who also have brain inflammation and poor mental function [5, 6].

6) Pancreas Inflammation (Pancreatitis)

In an observational study of 30 people, people with pancreas inflammation had increased glucagon levels, especially during the initial inflammatory attack [7].

7) Tumors

Glucagonomas are tumors of the pancreas that secrete glucagon. They can cause very high glucagon blood levels [24, 9].

Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 is an inherited disorder that causes tumors to form in the endocrine glands. Patients with this disorder also have high glucagon levels [8].

Health Effects of Glucagon

Glucagon May Help Fight Obesity

Since glucagon increases satiety and helps burn fats, glucagon and glucagon-like substances are being investigated as weight-loss therapies. Increasing glucagon may help people with metabolic syndrome, obesity, or high blood lipids [10].

Maintaining healthy glucagon levels may work better as prevention. However, low insulin and large glucagon increases are not beneficial. If the pancreas becomes damaged, increasing glucagon can be harmful. Glucagon needs to be balanced with normal insulin, blood glucose, and fat levels.

High Glucagon Levels Increase Diabetes Risk

High glucagon together with low insulin or insulin resistance reduces glucose tolerance, according to an observational study of over 100 people [25].

This means that glucagon contributes to long-term increases in blood sugar levels, which can lead to diabetes [4, 26].

High glucagon levels can also contribute to diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition with high levels of acidic ketones in the blood. Too much glucagon and too little insulin cause very high sugar levels and the buildup of ketones in the body [27, 28, 3].

Glucagon Resistance

You may have heard of insulin resistance. But scientists are now realizing that glucagon resistance also exists and it can have many negative health consequences.

Glucagon controls fat-burning. Eating too much unhealthy, saturated fats can impair their signaling. Rats fed a high-fat diet develop glucagon resistance and fatty livers. High-fat diets may damage glucagon receptors and reduce their number. This causes tissues to become insensitive to glucagon and may impair energy and fat balance in the body [10].

How to Change Your Glucagon Levels

Ways to Increase Glucagon

Diet

  • Protein-rich, low-carb diets increase glucagon release from the pancreas. Foods that are high in protein include beef, egg, seafood, chicken, dairy, and beans [15, 16, 29].
  • Fasting also increases glucagon levels and reduces insulin [22].

Lifestyle Suggestions

  • Exercise more. Exercising increases glucagon levels [30, 31].

Supplements

  • Biotin [32]
  • Glutamine, which increases both insulin and glucagon. Glutamine would be especially beneficial for obese people or those with type 2 diabetes [33]

Ways to Decrease Glucagon Levels

Lifestyle Suggestions

Losing weight can help decrease glucagon levels [2].

Avoid stress, as it can trigger an increase in glucagon levels [14].

Irregular Glucagon Levels?

LabTestAnalyzer helps you make sense of your lab results. It informs you which labs are not in the optimal range and gives you guidance about how to get them to optimal. It also allows you to track your labs over time. No need to do thousands of hours of research on what to make of your lab tests.

LabTestAnalyzer is a sister company of SelfHacked. The proceeds from your purchase of this product are reinvested into our research and development, in order to serve you better. Thank you for your support.

About the Author

Helen Quach

BS (Biochemistry)

Click here to subscribe

RATE THIS ARTICLE

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars
(10 votes, average: 4.60 out of 5)
Loading...

FDA Compliance

The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body. We do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.