What Does the Pancreas Do?


The pancreas is a small glandular organ located deep within the abdomen.  Many people don’t know that much about their pancreas because it remains hidden, quietly performing its job day in and day out.

In fact, most people are unaware their pancreas even exists unless they experience one of the many pancreatic disorders that result in health complications.

As with all organs in the body, it is important for you to understand what the pancreas’ primary functions are.  That’s why today we are going to look at what the pancreas is and what it does in your body.


What is the Pancreas?

The pancreas is a long, flat organ that sits between the stomach and the spine.  In addition, a small part of the pancreas rests in the curve of the small intestine.

The pancreas divides into four main sections:

  1. Head
  2. Neck
  3. Body
  4. Tail

The head of the pancreas is the largest section and is located near the place your stomach attaches to the small intestine to begin the digestion process.

On the other hand, the tail is the narrowest section and lays near your spleen.

What Does the Pancreas Do?

The pancreas is involved in your body’s blood sugar control and metabolism, as well as the secretion of digestive enzymes.  More specifically, the pancreas has two main functions:

  • Endocrine Function – Endocrine cells inside the pancreas called islets of Langerhans produce important hormones that regulate pancreatic secretions and control your body’s blood sugar levels. These hormones secrete directly into your body’s bloodstream.  One of the main hormones the pancreas is responsible for secreting is insulin.
  • Exocrine FunctionExocrine tissue makes up 95% of the pancreas and produces enzymes that aid in digestion.  These enzymes drain into the duodenum portion of the small intestine and help break down foods.


Regulation of Blood Sugar

Important hormones such as insulin and glucagon are required for your body to maintain appropriate blood sugar levels.  And it just so happens, these hormones are produced by none other than your pancreas.

When unprocessed sugars that you have ingested convert into energy, they first travel to the liver where glucagon breaks the sugars into more absorbable glycogen varieties and then releases them directly into the bloodstream.  This in turn raises your body’s sugar levels so that you can make it through your daily activities.  If your body’s blood sugar levels are already too high, or at the very least stable, your body will store those absorbable sugars for later use.

After the glycogens pass into your body’s bloodstream, insulin secreted by the pancreas joins the blood cells to help them absorb the proper amount of sugar needed to function.  This is how your body keeps a perfect balance when it comes to blood sugar levels.


Proper Digestion

The pancreas, as a member of the body’s exocrine system, produces digestive juices needed to break down the nutrients your stomach’s acids could not effectively metabolize.  In addition, since the pancreas is near the small intestine, pancreatic ducts starting at the head of the pancreas lead into the duodenum to deliver more digestive enzymes to continue breaking down foods as parts of the digestive process.

Digestive juices produced in the pancreas start out alkaline.  However, when they contact substances that have recently been covered in stomach acid, they immediately become acidic and begin breaking down foods.  These enzymes include:

  • Lipase This enzyme is responsible for breaking down lipids, also known as triglycerides, fats, and oils. With too much fat in your diet, you can suffer from serious health conditions such as heart disease and cancer.  However, some fat is required for your body to function properly since all of your body’s cells are made up of lipids.
  • Trypsin – This protease enzyme helps to break down the proteins you ingest. It is part of the pancreatic juices secreted during digestion and is activated in the duodenum of the small intestine.  A lack of sufficient trypsin production is one element to the pancreatic disease cystic fibrosis.
  • Amylase – This enzyme breaks down starch, or carbohydrates, and converts it into sugar for your body to use or store for later use.  There are two main types, alpha and beta.  Alpha-amylase is found in the pancreas.  However, alpha-amylase also begins its work once you start chewing your food.

During digestion, your pancreas secretes a perfect mix of lipase, trypsin, and amylase, and other valuable enzymes.  From there, your body breaks down food particles into useable nutrients and initiates the absorption process.


Common Pancreatic Diseases

Though the pancreas is a small and relatively unknown organ, it is important to know that any improperly functioning portion of your pancreas can lead to many pancreatic diseases that range in severity.  Diseases associated with the pancreas include:

  • Diabetes – When your body fails to properly produce or use insulin correctly the resulting pancreatic disease may be diabetes. Since insulin is required for maintaining a healthy blood sugar balance in your body, any failure to keep that balance can cause many health issues.  The four major types of diabetes include Type I, Type II, gestational, and pre-diabetes.
  • Pancreatic Cancer – This very serious cancer, that often goes undetected, metastasizes quickly and often without any noticeable symptoms. There are very few treatment options for pancreatic cancer.  However, patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer may undergo the popular and often successful Whipple Procedure.  This procedure is something only your experienced Maryland pancreas surgeon should attempt, as it is highly complex.
  • Pancreatitis – If the pancreatic digestive enzymes secreted by your pancreas activate before entering the small intestine, the result may be pancreatitis. This pancreatic disease is better known as inflammation of the pancreatic tissue.  Because digestive enzymes are meant to break down foods, if they activate inside of the pancreas, they in turn attack the pancreatic tissue causing inflammation and damage to the pancreas itself.

Any imbalance of pancreatic enzymes or hormones in your body can wreak havoc on the overall quality of your health.  Whether caused by genes or diet, pancreatic disease is something to take seriously and have checked by your qualified pancreas physician.

If you live in the Maryland area and experience pancreatic related health issues, contact Dr. Fraiman of The Liver and Pancreas Center at St. Joseph Medical Center today.  With years of experience dealing with patients suffering from a variety of pancreatic issues, and an expert in performing the complicated Whipple Procedure, Dr. Fraiman can individualize a treatment plan to suit your health needs.

With a multi-disciplinary staff on hand to help with your every treatment need, Dr. Fraiman is dedicated to helping you regain your health as quickly as possible.  Get in touch with Dr. Fraiman today and see how he can help you or your loved one with their pancreas disease.