The pancreas is a gland organ that is located in the abdomen. It is part of the digestive system and produces important enzymes and hormones that help break down foods. The pancreas has an endocrine function because it releases juices directly into the bloodstream, and it has an exocrine function because it releases juices into ducts.
Enzymes, or digestive juices, produced by the pancreas are secreted into the small intestine to further break down food after it has left the stomach. The gland also produces the hormone insulin and secretes it into the bloodstream in order to regulate the body's glucose or sugar level. Read on to learn more.
Contents of this article:
What does the pancreas look like?
The pancreas is a 6 to 10 inch (18 to 25 cm) long organ located behind the stomach in the back of the abdomen. It is spongy and shaped somewhat like a fish that is extended horizontally across the abdomen. The head of the pancreas is the largest part and lays on the right side of the abdomen where the stomach is attached to the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum). It is here where the stomach empties partially digested food into the small intestine and this chyme (the semifluid mass of partly digested food expelled by the stomach into the duodenum) mixes with the secretions from the pancreas.
The pancreas is a 6- to 10-inch (18 to 25 cm) long organ located behind the stomach in the back of the abdomen.
The tail or body of the pancreas - its narrowest part - extends to the left side of the abdomen next to the spleen. There is a duct that runs the length of the pancreas, 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.
There are two main types of tissue found in the pancreas: exocrine tissue and endocrine tissue. Most of the pancreas - about 95% - is exocrine tissue that produces pancreatic enzymes to aid digestion. A healthy pancreas makes about 2.2 pints (1 liter) of these enzymes every day.
The remainder of the pancreas is composed of hundreds of thousands of endocrine cells known as islets of Langerhans. These grape-like cell clusters produce important hormones that regulate pancreatic secretions and control blood sugar.
Fast facts on the pancreas
Here are some key points about the pancreas. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- The pancreas is located in the abdomen and is a gland organ.
- It is an important part of the digestive system, producing enzymes and hormones that help break down foods.
- The pancreas is a 6 to 10 inch organ and is located behind the stomach.
- It is fish shaped and extends horizontally across the abdomen.
- A healthy pancreas produces the correct chemicals to effectively digest the food we eat.
- The endocrine portion of the pancreas is made up of several cells that secrete hormones straight into the bloodstream.
- Insulin is a hormone secreted by pancreatic beta cells in response to a rise in blood sugar.
- Acute or chronic inflammation of the pancreas could signify a presence of pancreatitis.
- It is possible for cancer to develop in the pancreas.
- To help keep the pancreas healthy and functioning, a balanced diet must be maintained together with an avoidance of smoking and excessive alcohol.
What does the pancreas do?
A healthy pancreas is able to produce the right chemicals at the right times in the right quantities in order to properly digest the food we eat. After food enters the duodenum, the exocrine tissues secrete a clear, watery, alkaline juice that contains several enzymes that break down food into small molecules that can be absorbed by the intestines. These enzymes include:
- Trypsin and chymotrypsin to digest proteins
- Amylase to break down carbohydrates
- Lipase, to break down fats into fatty acids and cholesterol.
The endocrine portion of the pancreas, or islets of Langerhans, is composed of several cells that secrete hormones directly into the bloodstream. Insulin is a hormone secreted by pancreatic beta cells in response to a rise in blood sugar. The hormone also moves glucose from the blood into muscles and other tissues so they can use it for energy. In addition, insulin helps the liver absorb glucose, storing it as glycogen in case the body needs energy during stress or exercise.
Glucagon is a hormone secreted by pancreatic alpha cells when there is a decrease in blood sugar. Its primary job is to cause glycogen to be broken down into glucose in the liver. This glucose then enters the bloodstream in order to restore the level to normal.
On the next page we look at problems associated with the pancreas and how we can maintain a healthy pancreas.