Pancreas Function: What Does The Pancreas Do?

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MNT Knowledge Center

The pancreas is a gland organ that is located in the abdomen. It is part of the digestive system and produces important enzymes and hormones that help break down foods. The pancreas has an endocrine function because it releases juices directly into the bloodstream, and it has an exocrine function because it releases juices into ducts.

Enzymes, or digestive juices, produced by the pancreas are secreted into the small intestine to further break down food after it has left the stomach. The gland also produces the hormone insulin and secretes it into the bloodstream in order to regulate the body’s glucose or sugar level. Read on to learn more.

Contents of this article:

  1. What does the pancreas look like?
  2. What does the pancreas do?
  3. What problems are associated with the pancreas?
  4. How can a healthy pancreas be maintained?

What does the pancreas look like?

The pancreas is a 6 to 10 inch (18 to 25 cm) long organ located behind the stomach in the back of the abdomen. It is spongy and shaped somewhat like a fish that is extended horizontally across the abdomen. The head of the pancreas is the largest part and lays on the right side of the abdomen where the stomach is attached to the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum). It is here where the stomach empties partially digested food into the small intestine and this chyme (the semifluid mass of partly digested food expelled by the stomach into the duodenum) mixes with the secretions from the pancreas.

Pancreas
The pancreas is a 6- to 10-inch (18 to 25 cm) long organ located behind the stomach in the back of the abdomen.

The tail or body of the pancreas – its narrowest part – extends to the left side of the abdomen next to the spleen. There is a duct that runs the length of the pancreas, and it is joined by several small branches from the glandular tissue. The end of this duct is connected to a similar duct that comes from the liver, which delivers bile to the duodenum.

There are two main types of tissue found in the pancreas: exocrine tissue and endocrine tissue. Most of the pancreas – about 95% – is exocrine tissue that produces pancreatic enzymes to aid digestion. A healthy pancreas makes about 2.2 pints (1 liter) of these enzymes every day.

The remainder of the pancreas is composed of hundreds of thousands of endocrine cells known as islets of Langerhans. These grape-like cell clusters produce important hormones that regulate pancreatic secretions and control blood sugar.

Fast facts on the pancreas

Here are some key points about the pancreas. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

  • The pancreas is located in the abdomen and is a gland organ.
  • It is an important part of the digestive system, producing enzymes and hormones that help break down foods.
  • The pancreas is a 6 to 10 inch organ and is located behind the stomach.
  • It is fish shaped and extends horizontally across the abdomen.
  • A healthy pancreas produces the correct chemicals to effectively digest the food we eat.
  • The endocrine portion of the pancreas is made up of several cells that secrete hormones straight into the bloodstream.
  • Insulin is a hormone secreted by pancreatic beta cells in response to a rise in blood sugar.
  • Acute or chronic inflammation of the pancreas could signify a presence of pancreatitis.
  • It is possible for cancer to develop in the pancreas.
  • To help keep the pancreas healthy and functioning, a balanced diet must be maintained together with an avoidance of smoking and excessive alcohol.

What does the pancreas do?

A healthy pancreas is able to produce the right chemicals at the right times in the right quantities in order to properly digest the food we eat. After food enters the duodenum, the exocrine tissues secrete a clear, watery, alkaline juice that contains several enzymes that break down food into small molecules that can be absorbed by the intestines. These enzymes include:

  • Trypsin and chymotrypsin to digest proteins
  • Amylase to break down carbohydrates
  • Lipase, to break down fats into fatty acids and cholesterol.

The endocrine portion of the pancreas, or islets of Langerhans, is composed of several cells that secrete hormones directly into the bloodstream. Insulin is a hormone secreted by pancreatic beta cells in response to a rise in blood sugar. The hormone also moves glucose from the blood into muscles and other tissues so they can use it for energy. In addition, insulin helps the liver absorb glucose, storing it as glycogen in case the body needs energy during stress or exercise.

Glucagon is a hormone secreted by pancreatic alpha cells when there is a decrease in blood sugar. Its primary job is to cause glycogen to be broken down into glucose in the liver. This glucose then enters the bloodstream in order to restore the level to normal.

On the next page we look at problems associated with the pancreas and how we can maintain a healthy pancreas.

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MNT Knowledge Center

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What problems are associated with the pancreas?

Pancreatitis

For most people, the pancreas operates as it should with little mention or fanfare. However, it is an organ and capable of malfunction. For example, a pancreas that fails to produce enough digestive enzymes can lead to weight loss and diarrhea because of poorly absorbed food.

The islets of Langerhans are responsible for regulating blood glucose. If these cells do not produce enough insulin, there is an increase in diabetes risk as blood glucose levels rise.

Pancreatitis is a disease characterized by acute or chronic inflammation of the pancreas. Inflammation can occur if the main duct from the pancreas is blocked by a gallstone or tumor. This blockage results in pancreatic juices accumulating in the organ, which may damage the pancreas or lead to the pancreas actually digesting itself. Pancreatitis is also known to be a complication associated with mumps, alcohol use, steroids, trauma, and drugs.

Islets of Langerhans
The pancreas is composed of hundreds of thousands of endocrine cells known as islets of Langerhans. These grape-like cell clusters produce important hormones that regulate pancreatic secretions and control blood sugar.

Although acute pancreatitis is rare, it does require immediate medical attention. Symptoms include intense stomach pain, abdominal tenderness and swelling, nausea and vomiting, fever, and muscle aches. Pancreatitis is usually first treated with painkillers. Patients will stop ingesting solid food, instead obtaining fluid and nourishment by intravenous means. Sometime – especially when pancreatitis causes secondary infections – surgery is required.

When acute pancreatitis repeats itself to cause permanent damage to the organ, the condition is called chronic pancreatitis. Alcohol abuse is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis, mostly affecting middle-aged men. The condition has symptoms such as persistent pain in the upper abdomen and back, weight loss, diarrhea, diabetes, and mild jaundice.

Pancreatic cancer

It is also possible for cancer to develop in the pancreas. Often, it is difficult for physicians to spot the exact cause of pancreatic cancer, but it is often linked to smoking or heavy drinking. Other risk factors include diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, liver problems, and stomach infections. Pancreatic cancer is also more common in men than women and among African-Americans than among whites.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may not appear until the cancer is in advanced stages – often too late for successful treatment. The condition often presents:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen from the tumor pushing against nerves
  • Jaundice – a painless yellowing of the skin and eyes and darkening of the urine, created when the cancer interferes with the bile duct and the liver
  • Loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting
  • Significant weight loss and weakness
  • Acholic stool (pale or grey stool) and steatorrhea (excess fat in stool).

Treating pancreatic cancer is difficult, and the prognosis tends to be poor. Patients usually receive surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of treatments. Often, the treatment is palliative, focusing on reducing pain.

Researchers from the British Dental Foundation reported in the journal GUT that gum disease can raise the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Medical News Today contains a special section all about pancreatic cancer. You can view the pancreatic cancer information here.

How can a healthy pancreas be maintained?

Maintaining a sensible, balanced diet and avoiding smoking and excessive drinking will help keep the pancreas healthy and functioning.

Recent developments on the pancreas from MNT news

Scientists make pure precursor liver and pancreas cells from stem cells

A new study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, describes how scientists have developed a way of producing highly sought populations of a pure tissue-specific cell from human pluripotent stem cells.

Bionic pancreas ‘could lead to cure for type 1 diabetes’

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported the success of a bionic pancreas that can help control blood sugar levels in patients with type 1 diabetes. Researchers claim the device may provide “a bridge to the often-promised but still elusive cure” for the disease.

Artificial pancreas better than pump for managing type 1 diabetes

The world’s first clinical trial to compare three ways of delivering insulin to control glucose levels in patients with type 1 diabetes concluded that two versions of an artificial pancreas can do the job better than conventional pump therapy. The results could have significant implications for the treatment of type 1 diabetes.