The pancreas is located in the abdomen. It lies behind the stomach, in front of the spine, and is surrounded by the intestines and liver. The gland is approximately six inches long and resembles a compressed bunch of grapes. Proper pancreas function is essential for the production of a number of hormones and digestive enzymes.
The Endocrine System: Insulin and Glucagon Production
The pancreas plays an important role in the endocrine system: it secretes hormones and other chemical substances which are released into the bloodstream.
Specialized clusters of pancreatic cells, known as islet cells, produce a variety of hormones, with each cluster specializing in the production of a specific hormone. For example two hormones produced by these specialized cells are glucagon and insulin. Glucagon breaks down glycogen in the liver, which raises blood sugar levels. Insulin makes it possible for cells to use blood glucose for energy. Thus, healthy pancreas function is necessary for maintaining correct blood sugar levels.
Pancreas Function and the Digestive System
The digestive system is also affected by pancreas function. The gland secretes pancreatic “juices,” which travel from the gland through a duct and into the duodenum (the beginning of the small intestine). These juices contain enzymes that are necessary for proper digestion.
Exocrine vs. Endocrine
When pancreas function is discussed, the terms exocrine and endocrine are used. The endocrine system releases hormones into the bloodstream. The exocrine system secretes substances and enzymes required for digestion into the small intestine.
Common Diseases of the Pancreas
When pancreas function is compromised, a number of possible health complications can arise. The location of the gland, buried as it is in the abdomen, makes it difficult to detect problems. Physical palpation of the gland is not possible, so blood tests and diagnostic imaging are often needed to diagnose pancreatic health difficulties. Health problems may include:
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the organ, and is often a source of pain. Pancreatitis may have a number of causes, and can be acute or chronic, hereditary or acquired. In some cases, pancreatitis can be fatal.
Pancreatic Cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. The disease has a high mortality rate, and treatment opti-ons are, at present, limited. Diabe-tes and pancreatitis are considered to be risk factors.
Type 1 Diabetes occurs when insulin production either shuts down or is severely reduced. The body is then unable to maintain appropriate blood sugar levels.
Type 2 Diabetes occurs when insulin production is normal, but the body’s cells no longer respond correctly to the hormone.
Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic disorder that causes the body to produce thick mucus that interferes with both respiratory function and the exocrine system. The mucus blocks the pancreas ducts, preventing digestive enzymes from reaching the small intestine. This results in insufficient digestion and malnutrition.