The pancreas is one of the organs belonging to the digestive system of vertebrates. In humans it is located deep in the abdomen, approximately at the same height as the first and second lumbar vertebrae, in the same area as the adrenal glands. The pancreas is located behind the stomach and is connected to the small intestine through the duodenum through the ampulla of Vater, and to the liver through the duodenum of Wirsung.The word pancreas comes from the Greek language, it is composed of the words pân which means everything and kréas which means meat, because physically it is an organ with a different consistency than other organs. The pancreas is one of the so-called mixed glands , as it has an exocrine part that directly intervenes with digestion, and an endocrine part that is responsible for the production of hormones and metabolism.

Physically the human pancreas is an elongated organ , shaped like a tongue. The pancreas is made up of three main parts, the widest part is called the head and is the part that is attached to the small intestine, the middle part of the pancreas is called the body, and the thinnest part is called the tail.

The pancreas is one of the main glands of the body, it is in charge of several important functions for digestion, energy production and for the health of the entire organism. The pancreas is responsible for secreting the so-called pancreatic juices, which is the transparent secretion composed of water, electrolytes and various enzymes that intervene in the digestion of food, and more specifically in the synthesis of proteins, carbohydrates and fats so that the body take advantage of them and convert them into energy and nutrients.

In addition to helping with digestion, the pancreas is the body’s gland responsible for the production of insulin and glucagon, which are hormones necessary for the transformation and use of carbohydrates, which will be transformed into energy. Insulin and glucagon are created in the pancreas in clusters of cells called pancreatic or Langerhans islets, these islets also create other hormones and peptides such as somatostatin and certain antibodies called immunoglobulins.

Most of the pancreas is made up of rounded cells called pancreatic acini, which are responsible for the exogenous production of secretions with digestive enzymes, which go directly to the small intestine for digestion. The islets of Langerhans are small clusters of cells distributed throughout the pancreas, but they are found in greater numbers in the tail, these islets are responsible for the production of insulin and glucagon, therefore when they are damaged the production of insulin and diabetes or other metabolic disorders occurs.

But … what is the pancreas for?

The pancreas is one of the organs necessary for digestion, the production and use of energy , as it is responsible for the breakdown of nucleic acids, carbohydrates, proteins and lipids necessary for the functioning of the rest of the organs.

The pancreas serves among other things to:

  • Produce pancreatic juice.
  • Produce digestive enzymes.
  • Assimilate nutrients from food.
  • Help transform food into energy.
  • Regulate metabolism.
  • Produce insulin.
  • Produce glucagon.
  • Producer amilina.
  • Prodir somatostatin.
  • Produce pancreatic polypeptide.
  • Produce gastrin.

The pancreas in the process of digestion, nutrition and metabolism:

The pancreas, being a mixed gland, has several functions, including producing enzymes so that food is converted into nutrients, and separated into carbohydrates, lipids and nucleic acids and proteins.

Without the pancreas it would not be possible to metabolize sugars, some fats and other substances that come from food.

The pancreas is also necessary for the digestion of food, as they help the decomposition of each food, allowing the body to take advantage of nutrients and separate waste. Thanks to the bicarbonate content of pancreatic fluid, stomach acids are prevented from damaging the duodenum, helping to maintain an acid-base balance.

The pancreas is an essential organ for metabolism, since the enzymes it produces are responsible for bringing nutrients to the bloodstream, where they will be used by the rest of the body. The pancreas is also in charge of processing carbohydrates and lipids, helping the body transform them into energy or store them as fat.

Diabetes, glucose and glucagon:

The pancreas has within it clusters of cells called pancreatic or Langerhans islets, which are the cells responsible for the production of somatostatin, insulin and glucagon. These islets are very small and rare, but their function is essential for life.

Insulin and glucagon are two anabolic hormones necessary to maintain blood glucose balance, both in humans and animals. Insulin is responsible for lowering the level of glucose in the bloodstream when it is excessive, and glucagon is responsible for increasing glucose levels when they decrease, helping cells to have glucose available for energy.

Human beings, like animals, obtain sugars from different foods, transforming carbohydrates into glucose necessary for energy to live.

But when there are excesses in the diet, such as excessive intakes of complex carbohydrates and fats that will not be used, the pancreas is responsible for producing more insulin to help prevent the overproduction of glucose in the blood. In this way the excess calories from carbohydrates and proteins are stored as fat in the body, for when there is a need to use it.

When the islets of Langerhans are damaged, glucagon and insulin productions are diminished or altered, in many cases reaching a complete suspension of insulin secretion. Lack of insulin causes several metabolic disorders, diabetes being the main and most complicated of them.

Pancreatic cancer, pancreatitis, and cystic fibrosis:

The pancreas is a very delicate organ, which can be easily damaged and lead to life-threatening diseases or disorders. The most common disease caused by disorders in the pancreas is diabetes, as it is caused by damage to the insulin-secreting pancreatic islets.

In addition to diabetes, there are other diseases that affect the pancreas. The most common are pancreatic cancer, pancreatitis, and cystic fibrosis.

Pancreatic cancer is the growth of tumors in the pancreas, it is considered one of the most aggressive and difficult cancers to treat, because due to the location of the pancreas it is difficult to detect abnormalities with common studies. Pancreatic cancer can appear after a period of diabetes, after pancreatitis, or when there is a family history of cancer. Pancreatic cancer usually does not cause symptoms until very advanced in its state, and those that appear are similar to other digestive disorders.

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas or destruction of the pancreas by its own digestive enzymes. There are two types of pancreatitis, acute and chronic pancreatitis.

Chronic pancreatitis is when the pancreas becomes progressively inflamed, preventing its normal functions, causing diabetes, digestive disorders and malnutrition. There is no single cause that causes it, so it is difficult to prevent it, although there are genetic, environmental factors and diseases that are related to its appearance, especially alcoholism and cystic fibrosis.

Acute pancreatitis is when inflammation of the pancreas happens suddenly, causing severe and often fatal metabolic disorders. Acute pancreatitis can be caused by stones in the gallbladder, lesions in the pancreas, opportunistic infections, infectious and parasitic diseases, medications, drugs, surgeries in other organs, alcoholism.

Acute pancreatitis is very dangerous and can be fatal, it can lead to severe metabolic disorders, such as hypoglycemia (low blood glucose), hyperglycemia (elevated blood glucose), hypocalcemia (low calcium level in the blood), and hyperlipidosis (high blood elevated blood fat). In addition to these serious disorders, acute pancreatitis can lead to septicemia, especially if bacteria reach other organs.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease characterized by causing a large amount of dense mucus in various organs, mainly the lungs, pancreas, intestines and liver. In the pancreas, cystic fibrosis causes small tumors that progressively damage the pancreas. There is no cure for this disease, but there are treatments that prolong life.

Cystic fibrosis in some cases can cause diabetes, as the islets stop producing insulin or produce it poorly. Cystic fibrosis can also lead to pancreatitis or in some cases cancer.

This article is for educational purposes only and does not substitute for professional medical opinion.


Samantha Robson
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Dr. Samantha Robson ( CRN: 0510146-5) is a nutritionist and website content reviewer related to her area of ​​expertise. With a postgraduate degree in Nutrition from The University of Arizona, she is a specialist in Sports Nutrition from Oxford University and is also a member of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

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