The pancreas is a gland organ in the abdomen and forms part of the digestive system. It produces insulin and secretes fluid that helps break down food.

The pancreas secretes enzymes, or digestive juices, into the small intestine. There, it continues breaking down food that has left the stomach. The pancreas also produces the hormone insulin and secretes it into the bloodstream, where it regulates the body’s glucose or sugar level.

Problems with insulin control can lead to secondary diabetes, and inflammation of the pancreas can lead to pancreatitis. Noncancerous and malignant tissue can also grow on the pancreas.

Learn more about the pancreas and its function in this article.

A medical diagram of the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder systems.Share on Pinterest
Illustrated by Jason Hoffman

The pancreas is an organ extending horizontally across the abdomen.

The largest part lies on the right side of the abdomen, where the stomach attaches to the first part of the small intestine, the duodenum. The narrow part of the pancreas extends to the left side of the abdomen next to the spleen.

A duct runs the length of the pancreas and connects to the organ at several points. At its end, this duct joins a common bile duct that extends down from the liver. This joint pathway delivers bile to the duodenum.

Around 95% of the pancreas is exocrine tissue. Exocrine tissue secretes substances into tissues and body parts other than the bloodstream.

The remaining 5% comprises hundreds of thousands of endocrine cells known as islets of Langerhans. Endocrine tissue secretes substances into the bloodstream. These grape-like cell clusters produce important hormones that regulate pancreatic secretions and control blood sugar.

A healthy pancreas produces chemicals to digest the food we eat.

The exocrine tissues secrete a clear, watery, alkaline juice into the common bile duct and, ultimately, the duodenum. This substance contains several enzymes that break down food into small molecules. The intestines can then absorb these smaller molecules.

The 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 tissue secretes insulin and other hormones into the bloodstream. Pancreatic beta cells release insulin when blood sugar levels rise.

Insulin moves glucose from the blood into muscles and other tissues for use as energy. Insulin also helps the liver absorb glucose, storing it as glycogen in case the body needs energy during stress or exercise. When blood sugar falls, pancreatic alpha cells release the hormone glucagon.

Glucagon triggers the breakdown of glycogen into glucose in the liver. The glucose then enters the bloodstream, restoring blood sugar levels to normal.

Problems with the pancreas can affect the whole body.

If the pancreas does not produce enough digestive enzymes, for example, the digestive system will not absorb nutrients as intended. This can lead to weight loss and diarrhea.

Additionally, too little insulin production will increase the risk of diabetes, and blood glucose levels will rise.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis refers to an acute or chronic inflammation of the pancreas. It can lead to secondary diabetes.

Inflammation can occur if gallstones or tumors block the main duct from the pancreas. Pancreatic juices will accumulate in the pancreas, causing damage. The pancreas may start to digest itself.

Pancreatitis can happen as a result of mumps, gallstones, trauma, and the use of alcohol, steroids, and drugs.

Acute pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is the sudden, rapid inflammation of the organ. The condition is rare, but it needs immediate medical attention.

Symptoms include:

  • intense abdominal pain, tenderness, and swelling
  • nausea and vomiting
  • fever
  • muscle aches

Immediate treatment is normally with fluids and painkillers. If a secondary infection occurs, surgery may be necessary.

Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis can develop if acute pancreatitis repeatedly happens, resulting in permanent damage.

The most common cause is alcohol abuse, and it mostly affects middle-aged men.

Symptoms include:

  • persistent pain in the upper abdomen and back
  • weight loss
  • diarrhea
  • diabetes
  • mild jaundice

Learn the differences between acute and chronic pancreatitis here.

Hereditary pancreatitis

A person may experience pancreatitis due to inheriting misfunctioning PRSS1 and SPINK1 genes.

It is a progressive condition that can lead to permanent damage. The person may experience pain, diarrhea, malnutrition, or diabetes. Treatment aims to control pain to replace lost enzymes.

Pancreatic cancer

Cancer can develop in the pancreas. The exact cause is often unknown, but risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

Symptoms include:

  • pain in the upper abdomen as the tumor pushes against the nerves
  • jaundice
  • loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting
  • significant weight loss and weakness
  • pale or gray stool, and excess fat in the stool

Pancreatic cancer symptoms may not appear until the cancer is in the advanced stages. By then, it may be too late for successful treatment. The outlook for pancreatic cancer tends to be poor. The 5-year survival rate is around 42% for localized pancreatic cancer. This rate drops to 3% if the cancer is present in other organs. The overall 5-year survival rate is 11%.

Treatment usually involves surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination. Palliative treatment will focus on reducing the pain.

Pancreatic cancer accounts for around 3% of all cancer cases in the United States and around 7% of cancer deaths.

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for cancer, visit our dedicated hub.

Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. It occurs when the immune system attacks and destroys the beta cells in the pancreas so that they can no longer produce insulin. The exact cause remains unknown, but it may be due to genetic and environmental factors, including viruses.

Type 2 diabetes begins when the body’s muscle, fat, and liver cells cannot process glucose adequately. This happens when cells cannot utilize the insulin the pancreas makes properly, or the pancreas cannot make enough insulin. As a result, the body can no longer control blood glucose levels.

Other issues

Other problems that can occur in relation to the pancreas include:

  • Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency: This occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough enzymes.
  • Pancreatic cysts: These are fluid-filled sacs that can grow on the pancreas. The growths are typically noncancerous but can be malignant.
  • Pancreatic fluid collections: An inflamed pancreas can leak digestive enzymes. This fluid can build up around the pancreas, causing abdominal pain, fever, and other symptoms.
  • Zollinger-Ellison syndrome: In this condition, tumors develop in the pancreas or duodenum. These cause the stomach to produce too much acid.

Following a balanced diet and avoiding smoking and excessive drinking will help keep the pancreas healthy.

The National Pancreatic Foundation recommends:

  • consuming no more than 20 grams of fat a day
  • avoiding alcohol
  • drinking plenty of water to keep hydrated

The pancreas is a large gland that plays a vital role in the digestive system. It secretes enzymes that help break down food and produces insulin, which is vital for managing blood sugar.

Inflammation of the pancreas is known as pancreatitis. This can lead to pain, discomfort, and many health complications.

Avoiding smoking and excessive drinking and eating a balanced, healthful diet are the best ways of maintaining pancreatic health.