The pancreas is a 6-inch-long organ that sits behind the stomach and across the back of the abdomen. The pancreas gets its name from the Greek words pan ‘all’ and kreas ‘flesh’. This organ is a heterocrine gland and has roles in both the digestive system and the endocrine system.

3-D X-ray with the pancreas in red.

The Pancreas in the Digestive System

As part of the digestive system, the pancreas secretes its pancreatic juices into the small intestine to aid in food digestion. These juices contain bicarbonate, which neutralizes stomach acids, and digestive enzymes that breakdown carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

The Pancreas in the Endocrine System

In the endocrine system, the pancreas functions to regulate blood sugar levels, secreting the hormones insulin, glucagon, somatostatin, and pancreatic polypeptide. A properly functioning pancreas responds to blood sugar levels in two ways.

  • 1) When blood glucose levels are low, the pancreas secretes glucagon, which functions to increase blood sugar levels.

  • 2) When blood sugar levels are high, the pancreas will secrete the insulin hormone to decrease glucose in the blood.

After each one of these functions, the healthy pancreas will then release the hormone somatostatin to inhibit the release of glucagon and insulin.

Major Diseases of the Pancreas

Pancreatitis

Chronic inflammation of the pancreas is known as pancreatitis. In pancreatitis, enzymes damage the structure and tissues of the pancreas. Over time, this develops into chronic pancreatitis and can cause severe pain, problems digesting fat (steatorrhea), or diabetes. The development of pancreatitis is closely associated with recurrent gallstones, chronic alcohol use, and excessive triglyceride (fat) levels.

Cancer

Pancreatic cancer, the most common type of which is adenocarcinoma, are very difficult to treat forms of cancer. Pancreatic cancers are generally difficult to treat because they are mostly diagnosed in late stages; often too late for surgery which is the most viable treatment.

Diabetes mellitus

The most well-known disease of the pancreas is diabetes. Diabetes has two major forms; type 1 diabetes and type 2. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the insulin-secreting cells of the pancreas of been damaged by the body’s own immune system. In type 2 diabetes, a combination of environmental factors – such as poor diet or pancreatic injury – can cause insulin resistance or inhibit the secretion of insulin. Both types of diabetes result in elevated blood glucose levels.

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