Glucose Counterregulation and Its Impact on Diabetes Mellitus

  1. John E Gerich
  1. University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Clinical Research Center Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  1. Address correspondence and reprint requests to John E. Gerich, MD, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Clinical Research Center, Room 3488, Presbyterian-University Hospital, Pittsburgh, PA 15261.


Glucose counterregulation is the sum of processes that protect against development of hypoglycemia and that restore euglycemia if hypoglycemia should occur. In order of importance, the key counterregulatory factors are glucagon, epinephrine, growth hormone, cortisol, and hepatic autoregulation. These act primarily by increasing hepatic glucose output, initially via breakdown of glycogen and later by gluconeogenesis. In people without diabetes and in people with type II (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes, suppression of endogenous insulin secretion during hypoglycemia is also important in permitting full expression of the effects of counterregulation. People with diabetes are more prone to develop hypoglycemia for various reasons (e.g., insulin overdose, skipped meals, and intensive exercise); one that has recently been identified is impaired glucose counterregulation: patients with type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes (and to a lesser extent, patients with type II diabetes) lose the glucagon response to hypoglycemia; subsequent development of autonomic neuropathy with concomitant loss of the epinephrine response leads to almost complete paralysis of counterregulation and loss of recognition of hypoglycemia. To make matters worse, an episode of hypoglycemia that causes activation of counterregulation can lead to rebound hyperglycemia (Somogyi phenomenon); if this is improperly treated, brittle diabetes may follow. Thus, abnormalities in glucose counterregulation may predispose to severe hypoglycemia and prevent achievement of optimal glycemic control in patients with diabetes.

  • Received June 20, 1988.
  • Revision received July 11, 1988.
  • Accepted July 11, 1988.
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