The Pancreas: Functions and Diseases

pancreasBecause the pancreas isn’t seen or felt in our day-to-day lives, most people don’t know as much about it as they do about other parts of their bodies. It is one of those organs that we don’t think about unless there is something wrong with it. Unfortunately there are many serious, life-threatening ailments associated with this important organ. Perhaps the first to come to mind is diabetes – type 1 and type 2. We also hear about pancreatic cancer – all too often resulting in the death of someone. Learning about this organ and its maladies could prove to be a life-saving lesson.

The pancreas is a long (about 6 inches) flattened gland located deep in the abdomen, with part of it sandwiched between the stomach and the spine. The other part is nestled in the curve of the duodenum (first part of the small intestine). It’s really two glands mixed together into one organ. The bulk of the pancreas is composed of “exocrine” cells that produce enzymes to help with the digestion of food. The second functional component of the pancreas is the “endocrine” pancreas. The endocrine pancreas is composed of endocrine cells that release their secretions such as insulin and glucagon into the blood stream helping to control blood sugar levels.

There are several serious conditions associated with the pancreas, but perhaps the three we hear about most are:

  • Type 1 diabetes – the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Lifelong insulin injections are required to control blood sugar.
  • Type 2 diabetes – the pancreas loses the ability to appropriately produce and release insulin. The body also becomes resistant to insulin, and blood sugar rises.
  • Pancreatic cancer – the most common type arises from the cells that line the pancreatic duct. Because there are usually few or no early symptoms, pancreatic cancer is often advanced by the time it’s discovered.

To learn more about the pancreas and conditions, symptoms, and treatments go to: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/pancreaticdiseases.html

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