Why Do We Have a Pancreas?

Your pancreas is a spongy gland nestled deep within your abdomen and is surrounded by your stomach, small intestine, liver, spleen and gallbladder. Pancreas Location in Body

It is approximately 6 to 10 inches long (18 to 25 cm) and is a vital part of digestion and blood sugar regulation.

Without your pancreas your body would be unable to maintain its delicate balance and function correctly.


Pancreas Anatomy

The pancreas is made up of four distinct parts: the head (which can be furthered split into the uncinate process and head proper), the neck, body, and tail.

The head of the pancreas is the largest portion of the organ and lays on the right side of your abdomen.

Parts of the PancreasNearby the stomach empties partially digested food into the small intestine for further digestion by mixing its production of chyme with pancreatic secretions.

The rest of the pancreas, the neck, body, and tail, narrow as it extends towards the left side of your body.

There are two types of tissue found to make up your pancreas: exocrine and endocrine tissue.

The exocrine tissue is responsible for the pancreas’ digestive functions whereas the endocrine tissue aids in glucose regulation.


Exocrine Tissue

This part of your pancreas makes up nearly 95% of all tissue in your pancreas.  It is made up of ducts that are arranged in clusters called acini.

Pancreatic secretions full of enzymes are secreted into the lumen of the acinus, then drain to the main pancreatic duct, and finally make their way directly into the duodenum where the main digestion of your food occurs.

A healthy pancreas produces about 1 liter of these enzymes every day.


Endocrine Tissue

The remainder of your pancreas’ tissue is composed of thousands of endocrine cells called islets of Langerhans.  They are responsible for producing hormones that regulate your pancreatic secretions and help control your blood sugar.


Pancreas Functionality

As mentioned above, the pancreas has two separate functions, although they are equally important to your overall health.


Digestive Function

Acinar Cells in PancreasThe pancreas uses its exocrine cells to produce enzymes to help with the digestion of food.

These enzymes are in a clear, watery, alkaline juice (also known as pancreatic juice) that break down food into small molecules that can be absorbed by the intestines.

They are released in an inactive form as food enters the stomach in anticipation for further digestion once in the small intestine.

When needed, pancreatic juice is released from the pancreas and moves through progressively larger ducts that come together to form the main pancreatic duct.

Running the entire length of the pancreas, the main pancreatic duct releases the fluid (mixed with the digestive enzymes) produced via the exoocrine cells (the acini).  Before releasing directly into the duodenum to digest food that is present, the main pancreatic duct merges with the bile duct at the head of the pancreas at what is called the ampulla of Vater.

Hormones such as gastrin, cholecystokinin (CCK) and secretin regulate the production and secretion of pancreatic digestive enzymes into the small intestine.  Cells in the stomach or duodenum release these hormones when it is sensed that digestive enzymes are required to continue the process of digestion.

Collectively bile and pancreatic enzymes (now activated) enter the duodenum to digest fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.  Additionally, the exocrine tissue of the pancreas secretes a bicarbonate substance to neutralize stomach acid that enters the duodenum during digestion.


Blood Sugar Regulation Function

Islets of Langerhans in PancreasThe second function of the pancreas is the regulation of your body’s blood glucose (sugar) levels.

Within the endocrine cells of the pancreas there are small islands of cells called islets of Langerhans.

Here, hormones such as insulin and glucagon are secreted directly into your bloodstream rather than travelling through the pancreatic ducts.  These two hormones work together to balance your body’s glucose levels.

Hormones are substances that control or regulate specific functions in the body. They are usually made in one part of the body and carried through the blood to take action in another part of the body.

1. Insulin is a hormone that is released into your body in response to a rise in blood sugar.

Insulin levels are especially high in your body after consuming protein and carbohydrates as these foods spike your sugar levels dramatically and must be brought down to more normal levels.  If the pancreas does not produce sufficient insulin, type 1 diabetes will develop.

This hormone also aids in moving glucose into muscles and other tissues to be used for energy.  Lastly, insulin helps the liver to absorb glucose to be stored as glycogen should your body experience higher than normal levels of activity or stress and need an extra boost of energy.

2. Glucagon is another hormone secreted by the pancreas, though this is in response to low blood sugar levels.

The primary function of glucagon is to break down the glycogen being stored in your liver into usable glucose for energy.  The glucose will then enter your bloodstream and restore your sugar levels to normal.

3. A third lesser known hormone that is often released from the pancreas is somatostatin.

This hormone prevents the release of insulin and glucagon hormones when your body is in perfect blood glucose balance.


Potential Pancreas Complications

As with all of the body’s organs, disease can develop and cause many issues with your health.  Some of the most common diseases associated with the pancreas include:

  • Diabetes Mellitus

This disease is due to a deficiency in insulin producing pancreatic cells. The result is regularly occurring high glucose levels in the body. Damage can occur to several of your internal organs if blood glucose levels remain high for prolonged amounts of time and therefore must be controlled through things such as diet and medication.

  • Acute/Chronic Pancreatitis

This is when your pancreas becomes severely inflamed due to a number of things such as: heavy alcohol ingestion, gallbladder disease (especially the presence of gallstones), and trauma. It is important to discuss the cause of the pancreatitis with your pancreatic doctor to determine what treatment options are available.

  • Pancreatic Enzyme Deficiency

When the pancreas fails to release the proper amounts of digestive enzymes, malnutrition and weight loss result and is often labeled as malabsorption. The digestive process is not completed and the nutrients needed to be absorbed by the body are excreted as waste instead causing a nutrient deficiency in the body.  Supplementation of pancreatic enzymes may be necessary to make up for those not being produced by the body.

  • Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer can have a long-lasting and detrimental effect on your overall health. Some tumors have the ability to secret pancreatic enzymes and can overload your body with the wrong amounts and cause a lot of damage.  Surgery by your pancreatic surgeon is often the only helpful treatment when dealing with malignant pancreatic cancer.


Final Thoughts

All organs in your body play a specific role and help maintain balance in your overall health.

The pancreas is no different.

From digestion to blood sugar level maintenance, it is vital that your pancreas remain in working order so you body’s balance is not interrupted.

If you are suffering from pancreatic disease, consider contacting the leading pancreatic surgeon Dr. Fraiman to help determine a treatment plan based on your particular issues.

If surgery is an option rest assured he is the best pancreatic surgeon there is.  Dr. Fraiman has over 20 years of experience as a pancreatic surgeon and is teamed up with a superior medical team to help you through every stage of the treatment process.

Having a healthy pancreas is a number one priority; so is choosing a qualified pancreatic physician.


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