The pancreas is a mysterious and complex organ to many people. At DDC Orlando, we understand most people know much less about the pancreas than they know about their hearts, brains and even their livers.
Yet almost every group eventually hears about this valuable organ when a friend or family member contracts a disease such as pancreatitis, diabetes or cancer of the pancreas. However, for your health and well-being, we suggest you don’t wait until then.
This article will help you to discover a little bit about your amazing, multi-faceted pancreas. Perhaps we ignore it because it is too deep within us to touch, even if it has tumors. The truth is, when we “feel” it the least, it is functioning at its best.
The Naming of Names: an Exocrine or an Endocrine Gland?
In today’s blog, DDC Orlando will begin a journey for you that will cover several blogs. We will travel through the facts, functions and problems of this amazing organ.
First of all, let’s get situated: We are discussing a horizontal, long flattened organ and buried deep within the abdomen.
It’s about 5-7 inches long, tucked under and below your rib cage. If you could look deeply within your own anatomy, to your right, you would see the widest part of the pancreas, called the “head.”
Then as you looked left you would see, “The tapered left side extends slightly upward.” This part is the body of the organ, and lastly, you could see it ends near the spleen. Naturally, medical teachers named this part of the organ the tail.
You might even say, this organ is made up of two types of glands:
- An Exocrine Gland–
The exocrine gland of the organ secretes digestive enzymes. These enzymes are secreted into a network of ducts that join the main pancreatic duct. That big duct goes for the entire length of the organ, like a pipeline.
- An Endocrine Gland–
The endocrine gland consists of the islets of Langerhans and secretes hormones into the bloodstream.
Form and Function: Inter-related within the Pancreas
These gland types also relate to functions. You need to know that the pancreas possesses two main types of functions:
On the one hand, as listed above, the pancreas has an “exocrine function because it releases juices into ducts.” If this were all you knew, you would name it an exocrine gland.
On the other hand, as listed above, the organ possesses the “endocrine function because it releases juices directly into the bloodstream…” Hence it works as an endocrine gland. Yes, therefore, it is also an endocrine gland.
Pancreas World: A Guided Tour through, over, under and around the Pancreas
Structurally, part of it lays horizontally between the stomach and the spine. “The other part is nestled in the curve of the duodenum. (The “duodenum” is simply the first part of the small intestine). This part, the head of the pancreas, lives on the right side of the body, as noted above.
Coincidentally, this is exactly where this organ needs to be in order to help us digest our food. You see, it is exactly at this juncture–where the stomach attaches to the first part of the small intestine–that an important digestive function happens: “At this point, the partially digested food passes from the stomach into the small intestine, and it mixes with the secretions from the pancreas.”
The Pancreas–Don’t Digest Without It
At the chemical level, the exocrine tissues of this essential digestive gland “secrete a clear, watery, alkaline” cocktail that spiced with several enzymes. It is these powerful enzymes which will break down sugars, fats, and starches.
Digestive Disease Consultants warn you that without them, your system would be unable to break down food. And the break-down is very necessary because your body needs small, efficient molecules that can be absorbed by the intestines. Read on, to find out what works:
Directly From the Pancreas: A Menu of Exquisite Enzymes to Aid Digestion
You might be curious about the names of these enzymes, and you might hear more about them if you or a loved one has pancreatic problems. The enzymes include:
- For protein digestion, the pancreas creates trypsin and chymotrypsin.
- Carbohydrates require amylase from the pancreas to break them down.
- The pancreas makes lipase, to break down fats into fatty acids and cholesterol.
Now, Meet the Transport System of the Pancreas
Without ducting, some glands could never accomplish simple feats of chemical and molecular help for your digestion. In the case of the pancreas, “A duct runs the length of this essential organ, and it is joined by several small branches from the glandular tissue. The end of this duct is connected to a similar duct that comes from the liver, which delivers bile to the duodenum.”
And as we stated, that area is the juncture where all the “magic” happens and, step by step, food becomes usable fuel for your body. All in all, around 95 percent of the pancreas is exocrine tissue. Your pancreas produces pancreatic enzymes to aid digestion. It seems unbelievable, but a “healthy pancreas makes about 2.2 pints (1 liter) of these enzymes every day.”
More Gifts from the Pancreas: Those Wild and Wonderful Hormones
In the meantime, the same organ, but different cells, contributes additionally to your well-being by industriously making hormones. These hormones are simply chemical messengers that travel through your blood.
They are on a mission to help “regulate your blood sugar levels and appetite, stimulate stomach acids, and tell your stomach when to empty.” Thus, they come from the endocrine portion of the organ, with the romantic name “the islets of Langerhans,” and they secrete insulin and other hormones.
A Quick Peek: The Most Famous Gift from the Pancreas, Insulin, On the Job
On the one hand, how about those Beta Cells?
Pancreatic beta cells release insulin when blood sugar levels rise.
Here’s what your insulin does for you when your pancreas is healthy:
- It transports the glucose from the blood into muscles and other tissues.
- Guess what? There you access it for energy!
- It assists the liver in absorption of the glucose. The two organs work together to store glucose in the form of glycogen.
- There the glucose waits until the body asks for it under stress or physical activity.
On the other hand, how about those Alpha Cells?
When your blood sugar falls, pancreatic alpha cells go on duty to release the hormone glucagon. Glucagon causes glycogen to be broken down into glucose in the liver.
Then, finally, the glucose then enters the bloodstream. They restore blood sugar to normal levels. And you feel better.
It is not difficult to see how problems with the pancreas will cause you to feel bad all over a multitude of systems. As we mentioned in the opening, diabetes, pancreatitis, and pancreatic cancer are the three most common problems that affect the pancreas. And we will be devoting several future blogs to understanding each of them, their symptoms and their treatments, a little better.