Diabetes and your pancreas
A direct connection exists between the pancreas and diabetes. The pancreas is an organ deep in your abdomen behind your stomach. It’s an important part of your digestive system. The pancreas produces enzymes and hormones that help you digest food. One of those hormones, insulin, is necessary to regulate glucose. Glucose refers to sugars in your body. Every cell in your body needs glucose for energy. Think of insulin as a lock to the cell. Insulin must open the cell to allow it to use glucose for energy.
If your pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin or doesn’t make good use of it, glucose builds up in your bloodstream, leaving your cells starved for energy. When glucose builds up in your bloodstream, this is known as hyperglycemia. The symptoms of hyperglycemia include thirst, nausea, and shortness of breath.
Low glucose, known as hypoglycemia, also causes many symptoms, including shakiness, dizziness, and loss of consciousness.
Hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia can quickly become life-threatening.
Each type of diabetes involves the pancreas not functioning properly. The way in which the pancreas doesn’t function properly differs depending on the type. No matter what type of diabetes you have, it requires ongoing monitoring of blood glucose levels so you can take the appropriate action.
Type 1 diabetes
In type 1 diabetes the immune system erroneously attacks the beta cells that produce insulin in your pancreas. It causes permanent damage, leaving your pancreas unable to produce insulin. Exactly what triggers the immune system to do that isn’t clear. Genetic and environmental factors may play a role.
You’re more likely to develop type 1 diabetes if you have a family history of the disease. About 5 percent of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes. People who have type 1 diabetes usually receive the diagnosis during childhood or early adulthood.
Since the exact cause isn’t clear, type 1 diabetes isn’t preventable. It also isn’t curable. Anyone with type 1 diabetes needs insulin therapy to live because their pancreas doesn’t function at all.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes starts with insulin resistance. That means your body no longer uses insulin well, so your blood glucose levels can become too high or too low.
It can also mean that your pancreas is still producing insulin, but it’s just not enough to accomplish the job. Most of the time, type 2 diabetes develops due to a combination of insulin deficiency and ineffective use of insulin.
This type of diabetes may also have a genetic or environmental cause. Other things that may contribute to type 2 diabetes include poor diet, a lack of exercise, and obesity.
Treatment for type 2 diabetes generally includes changes to your diet and exercise routines. Medications can help you keep type 2 diabetes under control. Some drugs help reduce the amount of glucose in your blood. Others stimulate the pancreas to produce more insulin. There is a long list of medications available to treat both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
In some cases, the pancreas eventually stops producing insulin, so insulin therapy becomes necessary.
If you have prediabetes, it means your blood glucose levels are outside of the normal range, but not high enough for you to have diabetes. This could happen if your pancreas is slowing down production of insulin or your body isn’t using insulin as well as it should.
You may be able to prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes by changing your diet, managing your weight, and exercising regularly.
Gestational diabetes occurs only during pregnancy. Because there are more risks to mother and baby, extra monitoring during pregnancy and delivery is necessary.
Gestational diabetes usually resolves after childbirth. If you’ve had gestational diabetes, you’re at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
Inflammation of the pancreas is called pancreatitis. When inflammation comes on suddenly and lasts for a few days, it’s called acute pancreatitis. When it happens over the course of many years, it’s called chronic pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis can be successfully treated, but may require hospitalization. It can become life-threatening.
Chronic inflammation of the pancreas can damage the cells that produce insulin. That can lead to diabetes.
Pancreatitis and type 2 diabetes share some of the same risk factors. Observational studies indicate that people with type 2 diabetes may have a two- to threefold increased risk of acute pancreatitis.
Other possible causes of pancreatitis include:
- high triglyceride levels in the blood
- high calcium levels in the blood
- excessive alcohol use
Diabetes can increase your risk of pancreatic cancer if you’ve had diabetes for more than five years.
Diabetes can also be a symptom of pancreatic cancer, especially if you developed type 2 diabetes after age 50.
If your diabetes has been well-controlled, but you suddenly can’t control your blood sugar, it may be an early sign of pancreatic cancer.
In people who have both type 2 diabetes and pancreatic cancer, it’s difficult to know if one caused the other. The diseases share certain risk factors, including:
- a poor diet
- physical inactivity
Pancreatic cancer may not cause symptoms in the early stages. People who have it usually receive the diagnosis when it’s in an advanced stage. It begins with mutations of pancreatic cells. While the cause of pancreatic cancer can’t always be determined, contributing factors may include genetics and smoking.
Having diabetes doesn’t mean that you’ll develop other problems with your pancreas. Likewise, being diagnosed with pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer doesn’t mean you’ll develop diabetes.
Because your pancreas is important for the management of insulin in your body, you may want to talk to your doctor about the connection. You can also incorporate lifestyle changes to reduce your risk for diabetes or pancreatitis. These may include the following:
- Maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet.
- Reduce your intake of simple carbohydrates.
- If you drink alcohol, reduce your intake.
- Exercise regularly.
- Talk to doctor about the best ways to maintain a healthy weight.
- If you have diabetes, follow your doctor’s prescribed treatment plan.