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What Is the Pancreas?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 22, 2021

Your pancreas plays a large role in digesting your food and regulating your blood sugar. This 6- to 10-inch long elongated organ is located in your upper left abdomen, right behind your stomach. By producing enzymes and hormones, your pancreas helps your body break down food, control your blood sugar, tell your stomach when to empty, and more. 

Parts of the Pancreas

Your pancreas is shaped like an elongated pear that extends horizontally across your abdomen. The widest part, called the head, is near the center of the abdomen, the point where the stomach meets the small intestine. The middle part of the pancreas is called the neck or body, and it extends to the left, where it tapers to a thin end called the tail. 

There are several major blood vessels that supply blood to your pancreas and other abdominal organs, including the superior mesenteric artery, the superior mesenteric vein, the portal vein, and the celiac axis. 

Almost 95% of your pancreas is made up of a type of tissue that produces digestive enzymes called exocrine tissue. The other 5% is made up of cells called islets of Langerhans, which produce hormones. 

What Does the Pancreas Do?

Your pancreas makes about 8 ounces of digestive juices every day. These juices contain enzymes to break down your food. These enzymes empty into the upper part of your small intestine and include: 

  • Lipase, which works with bile produced by your liver to break down fat
  • Protease, which breaks down protein in your diet and protects you from some types of bacteria and yeast that live in your intestine
  • Amylase, which breaks down starches into sugar so your body can use them for fuel

The pancreas also produces hormones that are released directly into your blood. Hormones from your pancreas carry messages to other parts of your digestive system. The hormones produced by your pancreas are: 

Insulin

The beta cells in your pancreas produce insulin. They make up about 75% of the hormone-producing cells in your pancreas. Insulin helps your body use sugar for energy. 

Glucagon

Glucagon is produced by your alpha cells, which make up about 20 % of the hormone-producing cells in your pancreas. Glucagon is a hormone that tells your liver to release extra sugar if your blood sugar gets too low. 

Gastrin

Gastrin is a hormone that tells your stomach to produce stomach acids. It's primarily produced in your stomach, but a small amount is produced in the pancreas. 

Amylin

Amylin is also produced in your beta cells. This hormone helps control your appetite and when the contents of your stomach are emptied. 

What Are Some Diseases of the Pancreas?

There are several common problems that can affect your pancreas, including: 

Diabetes

Diabetes occurs when your pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin or your body can't effectively use the insulin it does produce. Insulin is a hormone that lets sugar into your blood cells so your body can use them for energy. When your body can't use insulin or there isn't any to use, too much sugar stays in your bloodstream. This can cause health problems such as heart disease, loss of vision, and kidney disease. 

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is inflammation of your pancreas. It occurs when digestive enzymes build up in your pancreas and it starts digesting itself. This is usually caused by a gallstone that blocks the tube that empties the digestive enzymes out of the pancreas. This type of pancreatitis usually clears up when the gallstone is removed. Pancreatitis can also be caused by too much alcohol. This type of pancreatitis is known as chronic pancreatitis and doesn't clear up. 

Pancreatic cysts

Pancreatic cysts are sacs filled with fluid that grow on the pancreas. Many of these are benign (noncancerous). Some pancreatic cysts, though, are associated with pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. 

Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is the most common type of pancreatic cancer. This type of cancer accounts for about 95% of pancreatic cancers. It starts in the tissue that makes digestive enzymes. The other 5% of pancreatic cancers start in the cells that produce hormones. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "What is Diabetes?"

Columbia Surgery: "The Pancreas and Its Functions."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "The Digestive Process: What Is the Role of Your Pancreas in Digestion?"

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