Felix Rojas, HealthiNation
The pancreas probably isn’t one of those body parts you think about on the daily. But this spongy organ plays a pretty important role in digestion and blood sugar control. It’s about six inches long, and sits between your stomach and spine, surrounded by the small intestine, liver, gall bladder and spleen. The pancreas serves two main functions: making digestive juices, which consist of powerful enzymes that break down the food you eat; and producing hormones that help control how your body uses and stores sugar, the main source of energy.
Insulin is a super-important hormone because it acts to lower blood sugar. The pancreas produces this hormone in its endocrine cells. These cells are found in small clusters, known as the islets of Langerhans. When blood sugar levels rise, say, after your morning bowl of cereal, they release insulin directly into the bloodstream. Insulin helps transport the glucose from those wheat flakes out of the blood and into cells in your liver, muscles, and other body tissue. That glucose is either used as fuel for energy right away or stored for later use.
The pancreas also produces another hormone, called glucagon, which has the opposite effect as insulin. When your blood glucose gets too low, glucagon causes cells to release stored energy back into bloodstream, which raises sugar levels in your blood. The two hormones work together to keep your blood sugar at proper levels.
That’s how the pancreas knows how much insulin to release. Similar to the taste buds on your tongue, the pancreas is loaded with taste receptors that monitor what’s happening in the blood. When they “taste” sweetness, or sense sugar levels in the blood rising, the endocrine cells in the pancreas will release an appropriate amount of insulin to balance it out. Researchers believe sweet receptors in the pancreas are also triggered by fructose, a common ingredient in foods and beverages.
The majority of the pancreas is composed of something called exocrine glands, which produce different enzymes to help digest or break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. When food enters your stomach, the pancreas releases digestive juices—between 6 and 8 cups a day!— through a system of ducts that leads into the first part of the small intestine. The juices contain the enzymes, water, salt, and sodium bicarbonate—which is essentially baking soda. The sodium bicarbonate neutralizes the acid coming into the small intestine from the stomach to help the digestive enzymes work better.
The hormone insulin works like a key that opens the doors to cells and lets glucose from the blood inside. Without insulin, sugar builds up in your bloodstream, where it can start damaging everything from your blood vessels, nerves, and heart to your kidneys, eyes, and brain. Type 2 diabetes develops when your body becomes resistant to insulin, or your pancreas stops producing enough of it.
Scientists don’t know exactly why type 2 diabetes develops, but suspect certain factors—like genetics, excess weight, or physical inactivity—play a role. Type 2 diabetes can be treated with healthy eating, regular exercise, medicine, and insulin therapy.
On the other hand, type 1 diabetes occurs when your immune system—which is supposed to fight invading bacteria and viruses—mistakenly starts attacking the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. When enough of the islet cells are destroyed, your pancreas makes little or no insulin. This can happen over a few weeks, months, or years. People with type 1 diabetes need to take insulin to survive. (They usually take insulin by injection with a syringe, an insulin pen, or via an insulin pump.) Type 1 diabetes is much less common than type 2 diabetes. Roughly just 5% of Americans with diabetes have type 1. It’s usually first diagnosed in young people but it can occur at any age.
In September 2016, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first artificial pancreas for people with type 1 diabetes who are 14 and older. This implanted device links a glucose monitor to an insulin pump. The monitor checks your blood sugar levels every five minutes; then the pump delivers the right amount of insulin to keep blood sugar levels steady. More research on artificial pancreas systems are currently underway.
This strange phenomenon has a name: pancreatitis. It happens when pancreatic digestive enzymes become active while still in the pancreas (instead of in the small intenstine, where they belong). The digestive juices build up in the organ, irritating the cells and leading to inflammation and damage of the delicate tissue—essentially, causing the pancreas to digest itself.
Pancreatitis can occur as acute painful attacks, which comes on suddenly and lasts for days. Or it may be chronic and progress over years. Upper abdominal pain that radiates to your back and feels worse after eating may indicate you have acute pancreatitis. Other symptoms of pancreatitis include a swollen and tender belly, fever, quick pulse, nausea, and vomiting. Signs of chronic pancreatitis: upper stomach pain, unexplained weight loss, and oily, smelly stools.
Smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for pancreatic cancer. In fact, the risk of getting pancreatic cancer is about twice as high among smokers compared with those who have never lit up. Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues, most often in the exocrine cells lining the ducts of the pancreas. It can hard to detect early and tends to spread quickly to nearby organs.
Other factors that increase your risk of pancreatic cancer include: family history, pancreatitis, diabetes, and obesity. For people in families with a high risk of pancreatic cancer, newer tests for detecting early pancreatic cancer may help.
Choosing a diet that limits high amounts of fat and focuses on fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean protein can help prevent pancreatitis. (One such example is the DASH diet for healthy blood pressure.) These healthy choices can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which may help lower the risk of pancreatic cancer.
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