What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a six-inch-long gland located in your abdomen near your liver and part of the small intestine. It’s nestled right behind and slightly below your stomach and in front of your spine. The head of the pancreas is along the curve of your duodenum, the first part of the small intestine just beyond the stomach.

The pancreas plays a dual role in your bodily functions:

  • Endocrine system. The pancreas secretes hormones, including the blood sugar-regulating hormones: insulin and glucagon.
  • Exocrine system. The pancreas also secretes enzymes into your digestive tract through a duct into your duodenum.

What is the pancreas’ function?

Endocrine system

As part of the endocrine system, the pancreas secretes two main hormones that are vital to regulating your glucose (also known as blood sugar) level:

  • Insulin. The pancreas secretes this hormone to lower blood glucose when levels get too high.
  • Glucagon: The pancreas secretes this hormone to increase blood glucose when levels get too low.

Balanced blood glucose levels play a significant role in your liver, kidneys, and even your brain. Proper secretion of these hormones is important to many bodily systems, such as your nervous system and cardiovascular system.

Exocrine system

As part of your exocrine system, the pancreas secretes enzymes that work in tandem with bile from the liver and gallbladder to help break down substances for proper digestion and absorption.

Enzymes produced by the pancreas for digestion include:

  • lipase to digest fats
  • amylase to digest carbohydrates
  • chymotrypsin and trypsin for digesting proteins

The pancreas is part of a larger digestive process that begins in the stomach:

  1. The pancreas produces enzymes as soon as food reaches the stomach.
  2. These enzymes travel through a series of ducts until they reach the main pancreatic duct.
  3. The main pancreatic duct meets the common bile duct, which carries bile from the gallbladder and liver towards the duodenum. This meeting point is called the ampulla of Vater.
  4. Bile from the gallbladder and enzymes from the pancreas are released into the duodenum to help digest fats, carbohydrates, and proteins so they can be absorbed by the digestive system.

What conditions affect the pancreas?

Diabetes mellitus is one of the most well-known conditions that results from endocrine system dysfunction.

With certain types of diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin to maintain your blood glucose level. This can cause complications throughout your body, including:

  • feeling extremely thirsty
  • feeling exhausted without an obvious cause
  • losing weight without a change in diet or exercise
  • frequent urination
  • blurry vision
  • tingling sensations in your hands and feet
  • swelling or sensitivity in your gums

Other conditions that can affect your pancreas include:

  • Pancreatitis. This inflammation of the pancreatic tissue is caused by enzymes prematurely starting to work in the pancreas, before they’re secreted into the duodenum. Acute pancreatitis is most commonly caused by gallstones blocking the main pancreatic duct, or by drinking too much alcohol. It may only last for a few days on a sudden occasion, but it can also become a chronic condition that lasts for years. Pancreatitis can cause multiple symptoms, including abdominal pain, fever, and vomiting.
  • Pancreatic cancer. This condition is caused by cancerous cells in the pancreas. Types of primary pancreatic cancers include those that affect the endocrine and exocrine pancreas, and pancreatic lymphoma. A cancer in an organ adjacent to the pancreas, such as the duodenum or liver, can also invade the pancreas. Pancreatic cancer may be difficult to detect at first because the pancreas is tucked away behind several large organs that may make it difficult for your doctor to pinpoint a tumor with a physical examination or imaging tests. In addition, symptoms may not be present early in the disease.

How do I keep my pancreas healthy?

To prevent pancreatitis as well as conditions associated with pancreas dysfunction:

  • Keep your diet low in fat. Fats and cholesterol can contribute to the development of gallstones, which can lead to pancreatitis. A very high triglyceride level in the bloodstream can cause pancreatitis. Eat lots of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, especially broccoli, cauliflower, or cabbage. Avoid eating too many fried foods or high-fat dairy products.
  • Lose weight and stay fit. Get regular exercise (20 to 30 minutes a day), and maintain a healthy weight to prevent diabetes mellitus and gallstones that may lead to pancreatitis as well as to improve your overall physical health.
  • Don’t follow diet plans that promise quick weight loss. Your liver may accumulate to much fat when you follow these extreme diet plans, which increases your risk of developing gallstones.
  • Don’t drink too much alcohol. Alcohol is known to increase your risk of pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.
  • Don’t smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products. Any type of tobacco product can increase your risk of cancer throughout your body, including your pancreas. Between 20 and 30% of pancreatic cancer cases are linked to tobacco use.
  • Get a regular physical. Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect in its early stages. If you’re found to be at higher risk, get your pancreas regularly screened for cancer at an annual physical to catch it early before the cancerous cells increase and spread.

Can you live without a pancreas?

Yes, you can live without a pancreas. Many modern pancreas surgeries don’t involve removal of the entire pancreas. Even without a pancreas, you can make modifications to your lifestyle to compensate for the lack of hormone and enzyme production and secretion.

Without a pancreas, you will develop diabetes mellitus because of the lack of insulin in your body. As a result, you’ll need to take one or more of the following steps:

  • take an enzyme replacement pill
  • get subcutaneous injections of insulin
  • follow a diabetic diet
  • exercise regularly

The takeaway

The pancreas is a crucial organ for both endocrine and exocrine processes.

Without it, your body can’t properly operate many vital systems. Keeping it healthy by taking care of your body and regularly checking up on your overall health can help ensure that it’s working at full capacity.