Incretin hormones: Their role in health and disease

Diabetes Obes Metab. 2018 Feb:20 Suppl 1:5-21. doi: 10.1111/dom.13129.


Incretin hormones are gut peptides that are secreted after nutrient intake and stimulate insulin secretion together with hyperglycaemia. GIP (glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide) und GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide-1) are the known incretin hormones from the upper (GIP, K cells) and lower (GLP-1, L cells) gut. Together, they are responsible for the incretin effect: a two- to three-fold higher insulin secretory response to oral as compared to intravenous glucose administration. In subjects with type 2 diabetes, this incretin effect is diminished or no longer present. This is the consequence of a substantially reduced effectiveness of GIP on the diabetic endocrine pancreas, and of the negligible physiological role of GLP-1 in mediating the incretin effect even in healthy subjects. However, the insulinotropic and glucagonostatic effects of GLP-1 are preserved in subjects with type 2 diabetes to the degree that pharmacological stimulation of GLP-1 receptors significantly reduces plasma glucose and improves glycaemic control. Thus, it has become a parent compound of incretin-based glucose-lowering medications (GLP-1 receptor agonists and inhibitors of dipeptidyl peptidase-4 or DPP-4). GLP-1, in addition, has multiple effects on various organ systems. Most relevant are a reduction in appetite and food intake, leading to weight loss in the long term. Since GLP-1 secretion from the gut seems to be impaired in obese subjects, this may even indicate a role in the pathophysiology of obesity. Along these lines, an increased secretion of GLP-1 induced by delivering nutrients to lower parts of the small intestines (rich in L cells) may be one factor (among others like peptide YY) explaining weight loss and improvements in glycaemic control after bariatric surgery (e.g., Roux-en-Y gastric bypass). GIP and GLP-1, originally characterized as incretin hormones, have additional effects in adipose cells, bone, and the cardiovascular system. Especially, the latter have received attention based on recent findings that GLP-1 receptor agonists such as liraglutide reduce cardiovascular events and prolong life in high-risk patients with type 2 diabetes. Thus, incretin hormones have an important role physiologically, namely they are involved in the pathophysiology of obesity and type 2 diabetes, and they have therapeutic potential that can be traced to well-characterized physiological effects.

Keywords: glucagon; glucagon-like peptide-1; glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide; incretin; insulin; type 2 diabetes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / physiopathology
  • Eating / physiology
  • Gastric Inhibitory Polypeptide / physiology*
  • Glucagon-Like Peptide 1 / physiology*
  • Glucose / metabolism
  • Health
  • Humans
  • Incretins / physiology*
  • Insulin Secretion / physiology
  • Obesity / physiopathology
  • Weight Loss / physiology


  • Incretins
  • Gastric Inhibitory Polypeptide
  • Glucagon-Like Peptide 1
  • Glucose