Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that regulates the amount of glucose in the blood, effectively turning food into fuel for the body.

A person is diagnosed with diabetes once the body is no longer able to produce insulin (type 1 diabetes, caused by an autoimmune attack or malfunction) or able to produce enough insulin (type 2 diabetes, caused by metabolic disorder) to regulate blood sugar levels in a healthy way. Diabetes can develop at any age, and can even happen just during pregnancy (known as gestational diabetes).

A brief history of insulin

In 1921, Frederick Banting and his assistant Charles Best discovered how to remove insulin from a dog’s pancreas. They then used the insulin to save the lives of other animals, and eventually humans suffering from diabetes. Before insulin was discovered, people with diabetes were placed on a “starvation diet,” which just delayed death.

Insulin from cattle and pigs was used for many years, but it caused allergic reactions in many patients. The first synthetic “human” insulin was produced in 1978 utilizing E. coli bacteria in its production. In 1982, Eli Lilly began selling Humulin R/Regular and N/NPH, the first commercially sold biosynthetic human insulins.

Insulin Today

Insulin now comes in many forms. It is important to know the difference and to be aware of the various qualities that set them apart. If you are switching types of insulin because of insurance coverage, cost, or provider recommendation, it is important to learn the differences so that you know how to accurately dose your insulin and stay safe.

There are several types of insulin today: Rapid-acting, Short-acting, Intermediate acting, Long-acting, Ultra Long-Acting, and Inhaled insulin. They are categorized by how quickly they begin to work in the blood stream and also how long their effects will last.

They are produced by several companies, including what is known as “The Big Three” in the US: Ely Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi. Other companies such as Mannkind and Mylan also sell insulin in the US market. Each company has their own brand of insulin within each of the categories below.

For many people, insulins within the same category (rapid-acting, etc.) can be interchangeable, but this is not true for all. It is important to work with your healthcare provider to determine the right insulin for you.

Editor’s note: visit our US Healthcare Glossary for a deeper dive on the healthcare coverage system in the US.

A note on biosimilars

Biosimilar insulins, the generic form of the biosynthetic insulins currently on the market, are becoming more available as FDA approval pathways are streamlined within the US. It is currently unclear as to whether or not the availability of biosimilars will decrease the cost of insulin in the US.

Several manufacturers in the US are currently offering “generic” versions of their current insulins at a lower price. Other biosimilar companies may begin to enter the US market within the next few years.

Ultra rapid-acting insulin

  • Currently comes in two forms:
    • Fiasp (bolused or injected)
    • Afrezza (inhaled)
  • Taken as a bolus or inhaled before or during a meal or to correct for high blood glucose
  • Takes effect in 15 minutes
  • Fiasp lasts 2 to 4 hours, Afrezza lasts 1.5 to 3 hours
  • Brand names: Fiasp (aspart, with Vitamin B3 to make it ultra rapid), Afrezza (inhaled)

Rapid-acting insulin

  • Taken as a bolus before or during a meal or to correct for high blood glucose
  • Takes effect in 15 minutes
  • Lasts 2 to 4 hours
  • Brand names: Apidra (glulisine), Humalog (lispro), Admelog (lispro), Lyumjev (lispro-aabc), Novalog or Novorapid (aspart)

Short-acting insulin

  • Taken as a bolus before or during a meal or to correct for high blood glucose
  • Takes effect in 30 minutes
  • Lasts 3 to 6 hours
  • Brand names: Humulin R (insulin Regular human), Novolin R (insulin Regular human)

Intermediate-acting insulin

  • Usually taken twice a day as a combination bolus and basal insulin
  • Takes effect in 2 to 4 hours
  • Lasts 12 to 18 hours
  • Brand names: Humulin N (Insulin NPH), Novolin N (Insulin NPH)

Long-acting insulin

  • Taken once or twice a day as a basal insulin
  • Takes effect in 2 to 4 hours
  • Lasts 24 hours
  • Brand names: Lantus (glargine), Semglee (glargine), Levemir (detemir), Basaglar (glargine)

Ultra long-acting insulin

  • Taken once a day as a basal insulin
  • Takes effect in 6 hours
  • Lasts 36 hours
  • Brand names: Toujeo (glargine), Tresiba (degludec)