A healthy pancreas produces substances that are required for digestion and the breakdown of food. The pancreas produces two types of substances: enzymes and hormones. The pancreas contains exocrine glands that produce enzymes such as:
- Trypsin and chymotrypsin: needed for proteins to breakdown
- Amylase: needed for carbohydrates to breakdown
- Lipase: needed for fats to breakdown
The endocrine function of the pancreas involves the regulation of blood sugar levels. This is done through small islands of cells called the islets of Langerhans. These endocrine cells release their hormones insulin and glucagon directly into the bloodstream, which in turn controls the blood sugar levels.
What is the pancreas?
The pancreas, which is about the size of a hand, is located in the abdomen, just behind the stomach. It is surrounded by other organs including the small intestine, liver, and spleen. The pancreas plays a vital role in converting the food into energy. It mainly performs two functions: an exocrine function that helps in digestion and an endocrine function that controls blood sugar levels. Because of the deep location of the pancreas, tumors of the pancreas may be difficult to locate.
The exocrine pancreas produces natural juices called pancreatic enzymes to break down food. These enzymes travel through the tubes or ducts to reach the duodenum. The pancreas makes about eight ounces of digestive juices filled with enzymes every day. The different enzymes are as follows:
- Lipase: Along with bile, these enzymes break down fats. Poor absorption of fats leads to diarrhea and fatty bowel movements.
- Protease: It breaks down proteins and builds immunity against the bacteria and yeast present in the intestine. Poor absorption of proteins can cause allergies.
- Amylase: It helps to break down starch into sugar, which is then converted to energy to meet the body’s demand. Undigested carbohydrates can cause diarrhea.
Unlike enzymes, hormones are released directly into the bloodstream. Pancreatic hormones include:
- Insulin: This hormone is produced in the beta cells of the pancreas and helps the body to use sugar as the energy source. Lack of insulin can increase blood sugar levels in the blood and cause serious diseases such as diabetes.
- Glucagon: Alpha cells produce the hormone glucagon. If blood sugar gets too low, glucagon helps to increase it by sending a message to the liver to release the stored sugar.
- Amylin: A hormone called amylin is made in the beta cells of the pancreas. This helps in controlling our appetite (eating behavior).
What are the diseases of the pancreas?
The diseases of the pancreas involve the following:
- Pancreatitis: It is the inflammation of the pancreas due to the buildup of the pancreatic enzymes.
- Diabetes: Lack of insulin due to insufficient production from the beta cells can increase the blood sugar levels.
- Pancreatic cancer: Most cancers of the pancreas begin in the exocrine cells. Weight loss, diarrhea, and stomach pain can be presenting symptoms.
Can you live without a pancreas?
You can live without a pancreas. If the entire pancreas is removed, there would be no insulin-producing cells to control the blood sugar levels. This can lead to diabetes, which may be hard to manage because it requires insulin shots. People may also have to take certain pancreatic enzyme pills to help them digest certain foods.
What foods irritate the pancreas?
Foods rich in fats can cause pancreatitis. Constant intake of sugary foods is also known to affect the beta cells.
Foods that may irritate the pancreas include:
- Red meat
- Organ meat
- French fries
- Potato chips
- Margarine and butter
- Full-fat dairy
- Sugary drinks
Because most of the fats are processed by the pancreas, overloading with fats may make it difficult for the pancreas to process them.
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