What Role Does The Pancreas Play In The Human Body?

What is the pancreas? Most people know what organs like the heart, lungs and kidneys do, but fewer are familiar with the pancreas and what role it serves. The pancreas is multipurpose because it serves more than one function in the body. The pancreas is only about six inches long and is nestled in the upper part of the abdominal cavity behind the stomach. Since it plays a vital in the digestion of food, and is therefore located in close proximity to other organs involved in the digestive process which includes the stomach, liver, gallbladder and the small intestine.

The Pancreas Has A Dual Role

The Digestive Role. The pancreas helps the intestines absorb nutrients from food intake. It does this by secreting digestive enzymes that break down the three main dietary components – protein, fat and carbohydrates. It secretes these enzymes in an inactive form. Inactive enzymes travel down the pancreatic duct to the bile duct where they enter the small intestines at the first level called the duodenum. Once in the duodenum, the enzymes are activated to a form that helps to break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates along with bile from the gall bladder. The pancreas also secretes bicarbonate to neutralize the acidic stomach contents once they enter the duodenum.

Production of Hormones. The pancreas also produces hormones that help regulate blood sugar. Blood sugar stays within a fairly narrow range thanks to regulation by a proper functioning pancreas. Three different hormones are produced by the pancreas. Insulin, glucagon and somatostatin. They control the proper balance of blood sugar. Insulin, which increase after a meal, directs glucose into cells where it can be used for immediate energy or is stored for later use. Glucagon comes into play when a person hasn’t eaten in several hours and their blood sugar level starts to drop. Glucagon signals the liver to release glucose from stored glycogen to help raise blood sugar levels. Somatostatin regulates the secretion of all three types of hormones involved with digestion processes. It’s a carefully orchestrated system designed to sustain normal blood sugar levels.

Diseases That Affect The Pancreas

Two main functions of the pancreas are quite distinct from one another. Unfortunately, a malfunctioning pancreas can cause serious adverse effects. At best may be digestive enzyme supplements or strict diets to combat the effects of blood sugar imbalances. At worst are life- threatening diseases.

Type 1 Diabetes. With patients who have Type 1 Diabetes, the pancreas cells that produce insulin are not functional and do not produce insulin. Insulin injects will be necessary to replace the insulin the pancreas does not produce. And those that have Type 1 Diabetes face many other potential problems associated with diabetes.

Pancreatitis. The condition is generally a severe pancreas inflammation that can be life threatening and excruciatingly painful. An acute form is most often caused by gallstones, a diseased gallbladder or blocked bile ducts. Duration can be both short and long. The more serious chronic form is commonly caused by the excessive abuse of alcohol. Studies show that chronic pancreatitis substantially increases the future risk of being stricken with pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer. This is the deadliest type of cancer. It is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths with only a five-year survival rate of less than 6%. Over 96% of pancreatic cancer originates within the “exocrine” component of the pancreas which creates enzymes that are instrumental for food digestion. This type of cancer is generally called “adenocarcinoma”. Cancer of the “endocrine” component which produces hormones is far less common.