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 [R, R, R].
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 [R].
Glucagon is usually measured when a person shows symptoms of:
- Diabetes [R]
- Low blood sugar [R]
- Liver disease and scarring (cirrhosis) [R, R]
- Pancreas inflammation (pancreatitis) [R]
- An inherited disorder called Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1, which causes endocrine gland tumors [R]
- Glucagonoma, a tumor in the pancreas that secretes glucagon [R]
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 [R]:
- Burn fats and reduce fat stores
- Increase energy use
- Balance food intake
- Increase satiety
- Reduce the production of bile acids
Glucagon normally ranges from 25-150 pg/ml [R].
Causes of Low Glucagon Levels
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 [R].
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 [R, R]
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 [R].
3) Pancreas Removal Surgery
Since the pancreas makes glucagon, pancreas removal surgery (pancreatectomy) can cause glucagon deficiency [R].
Causes of High Glucagon Levels
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 [R].
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 [R].
2) High-Protein Diets
High-protein and low-carb diets can increase fasting glucagon levels by ~35% [R].
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 [R, R, R, R, R, R].
High-protein diets are ok in the short run but may contribute insulin resistance in some people in the long-run [R].
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 [R].
4) Low Insulin
In healthy people, low blood sugar will cause the pancreas to release more glucagon (and less insulin) [R].
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 [R].
5) Liver Disease and Scarring
People with liver disease and liver scarring (cirrhosis) have high glucagon levels. Glucagon rises even more in people with liver disease who also have brain inflammation and poor mental function [R, R].
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 [R].
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 [R].
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 [R].
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 [R].
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 [R, R, R].
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 its 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 [R].
How to Change Your Glucagon Levels
Ways to Increase Glucagon
- 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 [R, R, R].
- Fasting also increases glucagon levels and reduces insulin [R].
- Biotin [R]
- Glutamine, which increases both insulin and glucagon. Glutamine would be especially beneficial for obese people or those with type 2 diabetes [R]
Ways to Decrease Glucagon Levels
- Losing weight can help decrease glucagon levels [R].
Avoid stress, as it can trigger an increase in glucagon levels [R].