What is the pancreas and what does it do?

You probably haven’t given much thought to where you’re pancreas is located or even what it does, but we’re about to dive into this fascinating organ.

The pancreas is one of the major organs in your GI tract highly involved in the digestion and absorption of nutrients from food. It also plays a critical role in blood sugar regulation, which can affect your weight and overall health.

Pancreatic Functions

The pancreas lies deep in the upper abdomen wrapped around other internal organs and cushioned by fat. However, too much fat can actually impair pancreatic function, which can make you very sick and even lead to disease.

Although the pancreas performs many roles, these are the two major ones:

Endocrine and Exocrine functions

  1. Endocrine- pancreas makes hormones that regulate blood sugar levels
  2. Exocrine- pancreas makes digestive enzymes to break down food for absorption

The pancreas is essential for digesting food and absorbing nutrients as well as regulating blood sugar levels by producing hormones and digestive enzymes.

Hormones

The pancreas makes two critical hormones involved in blood sugar regulation, insulin and glucagon. Insulin is excreted when blood sugar levels are too high. Insulin causes cells to uptake glucose in an effort to lower levels in the bloodstream. However, the cells can only hold so much and if they are resistant to insulin, it’s likely that diabetes is already in progress. Insulin also signals the liver to convert excess glucose into triglycerides, which are stored in fat cells, spit out into the bloodstream, or left in the liver. While insulin levels are elevated in the blood, you cannot burn fat, as insulin is a fat-storage hormone.

Glucagon is made from the pancreas and released when blood sugar levels are too low. If levels dip below the normal threshold (normal blood sugar is about 70-100) glucagon tells the liver to release stored glucose. The liver has glucose reserves just for the purpose of regulating blood sugar levels. This occurs when we are not eating or drinking sweetened beverages. During fasting hours, like overnight, blood glucose levels start to drop. This process of the pancreas and liver working together properly to maintain blood glucose levels prevents hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), but in the presence of a disease, like diabetes, this process does not function correctly.

Digestive Enzymes

When food enters the stomach, the pancreas releases digestive enzymes, also referred to as pancreatic juices. These enzymes are responsible for breaking down fats, proteins, starches, and sugars.

  • Amylase for carbohydrates
  • Lipase for fats
  • Trypsin and Chymotrypsin for protein

If these enzymes aren’t able to be released, as with an obstruction in the pancreatic duct, inflammation and digestive problems result. If food cannot be broken down, it’s not absorbed properly, which can cause numerous complications. The liver and pancreas work closely together to break down food. Bile from the liver helps to break down fats for absorption. Therefore, any problem in either organ, in the liver or pancreas, could result in the other being affected also. An example is Fatty liver disease now shows that this may be a precursor to acute pancreatitis.

Pancreas Problems

Various elements can cause problems to the pancreas, especially our diet. A diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars add excess strain on the pancreas. Constant eating, especially high sugar foods, causes more insulin to be produced and released by the pancreas. In cases like Type 2 Diabetes, the cells are resistant to insulin, thus causing the pancreas to work even harder to speed up its production until it can no longer keep up.

Other conditions like smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, and being overweight can increase the risk of pancreatitis, which is usually from gallstones and/or alcohol. Pancreatitis can be mild to severe and may require hospitalization. Pancreatitis is also a risk factor for pancreatic cancer, which is also on the rise.

5 Tips for a Healthy Pancreas

  1. Diet- Reduce saturated fat intake (red meat and fried foods) and refined sugars
  2. Weight- Maintain a healthy weight, reduce abdominal girth (visceral fat)
  3. Limit Alcohol- Recommended alcohol intake is 2 drinks/day for men and 1 or less/day for non-pregnant women
  4. Avoid Fad Diets- Drastic diet changes should be avoided especially ones that are high in fat like keto. Losing weight too fast can lead to inflammation of the pancreas.
  5. Quit Smoking- Smoking impairs blood flow to the pancreas and also damages digestive enzyme function

Hopefully, these tips will keep you and your pancreas happy. Keeping your pancreas in top shape is important because without it you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the foods you love.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website.