Pancreas - dual purposed organ aids in digestion, regulates blood glucose
By: Joanne Smith, M.D.
Your digestive system is a complex series of organs and glands that take the food you eat and process it so that your body is able to absorb and utilize the various nutrients within the food while removing and excreting waste.
Your digestive system starts at your mouth and continues all the way through the small and large intestines. Along the way, certain organs – like the stomach and liver – perform specialized jobs to process the food. One of these organs is the pancreas.
The pancreas is a gland organ located in the abdomen. Its role in digestion comes after food leaves the stomach, as it is entering the small intestine. Here, the stomach empties partially digested food (called chyme) into the small intestine.
The pancreas works as a dual-function gland. About 95 percent of pancreatic tissue works as an exocrine gland, meaning it produces enzymes that are released through ducts into the small intestine to aid in digestion. The clear, exocrine solution contains four enzymes, each with its own specialized function. Trypsin, works to break down proteins. Another, amylase, breaks down carbohydrates. Lipase is an enzyme that breaks down fats into fatty acids and cholesterol. Finally, chymotrypsin breaks down peptide chains.
The remainder of the pancreas works as an endocrine gland, meaning that it secretes hormones directly into the bloodstream. The endocrine cells located in the pancreas are called islets of Langerhans. They produce hormones that regulate pancreatic secretions and stabilize the body’s blood sugar levels. One hormone that many people are familiar with is insulin. Another produced in the pancreas is glucagon. These hormones have a number of functions relating to blood glucose levels, storage of glucose in the liver and transporting glucose into muscles and other tissues so it can be used for energy.
For most people, the pancreas operates as it should, secreting enzymes to break down food, while regulating glucose levels throughout the body.
If there is a malfunction with the digestive enzymes (or the exocrine portion of the pancreas), food may be poorly absorbed, leading to weight loss, diarrhea and a condition known as pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is characterized by inflammation of the pancreas often caused by a blockage of the main pancreatic duct.
In addition to diarrhea and weight loss, other symptoms of pancreatitis include: severe stomach pain, tenderness and swelling of the abdomen, nausea and vomiting, fever, muscle aches, jaundice, rapid pulse and back pain. Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic.
If the endocrine portion of the pancreas malfunctions and the islets of Langerhans fail to regulate blood glucose there is an increased risk for diabetes. Other diseases can affect the pancreas, including pancreatic cancer and cystic fibrosis.
Although some disorders of the pancreas are genetic, you can decrease your risk for pancreatitis and type 2 diabetes by choosing a lifestyle habits that include a balanced diet, regular exercise, maintenance of a healthy weight, moderation in alcohol consumption, avoiding smoking and breathing secondhand smoke.
Your body needs fuel to maintain energy and this fuel comes in the form of foods tyou eat. The pancreas performs important functions in breaking down proteins, carbohydrates, fats and peptide chains. It also regulates glucose levels in the blood. It is a dual-purposed gland serving both exocrine and endocrine functions – not bad for an organ that’s only about six inches long!
Dr. Smith is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.