In Depth: Pancreas and Spleen
The pancreas is a wing-shaped gland that extends from the duodenum (the upper portion of the small intestine) to the spleen. It serves both digestive and endocrine functions.
The pancreas aids in digestion by producing enzymes that digest several types of nutrients, including proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and nucleic acid, a common acid that acts as building block in DNA and is essential for all living things.
The pancreas also produces large amounts of fluid that protects the lining of the small intestine from the acidic chyme (partially-digested food) that it receives from the stomach. This fluid collects in a main duct that joins with a common bile duct. The fluid and bile wait to be released into the duodenum when the stomach releases food.
The pancreas also functions as an endocrine gland by producing two very important hormones that help regulate the level of sugar in the blood: insulin and glucagon.
People whose pancreases do not produce enough insulin have a condition known as diabetes. Type 1 diabetics have a pancreas that does not produce any insulin, and they must administer the hormone via injections through their skin. Type 2 diabetics produce an insufficient amount of insulin.
The pancreas can stop producing insulin for a variety of reasons. Poor diet, obesity, and a genetic disposition for the condition are among the most common causes of diabetes.
The spleen is a fist-sized organ of the lymphatic system that operates as filter for blood. It helps ward off infections and maintains body-fluid balance.
In addition to filtering blood through pulp-like tissue, the spleen also houses two very important types of immunity-related white blood cells: lymphocytes and phagocytes.
Some of the spleen’s other functions include:
- Cleaning impurities from the blood
- Destruction and removal of old red blood cells
- Storing blood in case of emergency, such as trauma
Because the spleen is soft, it can be injured in an accident, but this is rarely life threatening. If the damage is severe enough, the spleen may need to be surgically removed through a procedure called splenectomy.
Humans can live without a spleen because other organs — such as the liver — can take over the spleen’s function. However, people who have had their spleens removed are at greater risk of contracting serious infections.