The pancreas is the organ that produces insulin. Insulin is an essential hormone for regulating blood glucose levels. Problems with the pancreas and insulin production can lead to diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas does not make enough or any insulin. Conversely, type 2 diabetes develops when the body cannot use insulin correctly.

In this article, we look at the role of the pancreas in diabetes. We also describe complications of diabetes that relate to the pancreas and other disorders of the organ.

The pancreas produces digestive enzymes and sits within the abdomen, behind the stomach.

This organ also produces insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood glucose levels. The cells that produce insulin are called beta cells and sit in the islets of Langerhans, a set of structures within the pancreas.

Insulin helps the body use carbohydrates in food for energy and helps transport glucose from the blood into the body’s cells. Glucose provides the cells with the energy they need to function.

If there is insufficient insulin in the body, cells can no longer take up glucose from the blood. As a result, levels of glucose in the blood rise. A doctor may refer to this as having high blood glucose, or hyperglycemia.

Hyperglycemia is responsible for most of the symptoms and complications of diabetes.

The main feature of diabetes is high blood glucose. This results from insufficient insulin production or function, which can result from issues with the pancreas.

People with diabetes experience high or low blood glucose levels at different times, depending on what they eat, how much they exercise, and whether they take insulin or diabetes medication.

Type 1 and type 2 diabetes both involve the pancreas.

What are the treatment options for diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas does not make enough, or any, insulin. Without this hormone, the cells cannot get enough energy from food.

This form of diabetes results from the body’s immune system attacking the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. The beta cells become damaged and, over time, the pancreas stops producing enough insulin to meet the body’s needs.

People with type 1 diabetes can rebalance their blood glucose levels by receiving insulin injections or wearing an insulin pump every day.

Doctors once called this type “juvenile diabetes” because it often develops during the childhood or teenage years.

There is no clear cause of type 1 diabetes. Some evidence suggests that it results from genetic or environmental factors. Almost 1.9 million people in the United States are living with type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes

This type of diabetes occurs when the body builds up a resistance to insulin. While the pancreas may still produce the hormone, the body’s cells cannot use it effectively.

As a result, the pancreas produces more insulin to meet the body’s needs and is often unable to keep up with the increased demand.

With too little insulin in the body, diabetes develops. Over time, the beta cells become damaged and may stop producing insulin altogether.

As with type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes can cause high blood glucose levels and prevent the cells from getting enough energy.

Type 2 diabetes may result from genetics and family history. Lifestyle factors, such as obesity, lack of exercise, and dietary choices, also play a role. Treatment often involves becoming more active, making dietary changes, and taking some prescription medications.

A doctor may be able to detect type 2 diabetes early, in a stage called prediabetes. A person with prediabetes may be able to prevent or delay the onset of the condition by making changes to their diet and exercise routines.

What is a prediabetes diet?

Gestational diabetes

Pregnancy can cause type 2 diabetes, known as gestational diabetes, which can result from complications during pregnancy and delivery.

After a person gives birth, gestational diabetes usually goes away, though it may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Pancreatitis causes inflammation in the pancreas, and there are two types. The first is acute pancreatitis, where symptoms come on suddenly and last for a few days. The second is chronic pancreatitis, a long lasting condition where symptoms come and go for several years.

Chronic pancreatitis can damage the cells in the pancreas, potentially causing diabetes.

Pancreatitis is treatable, but severe cases can be life threatening and require hospitalization.

Symptoms of pancreatitis include:

  • nausea, vomiting, or both
  • pain in the upper abdomen that can radiate toward the back
  • pain that feels worse after eating
  • fever
  • abdominal tenderness
  • a racing pulse

According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, people who have lived with diabetes for 5 or more years are between 1.5 and two times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. This type of cancer can affect blood glucose levels.

The National Cancer Institute says the onset of type 2 diabetes in people without risk factors for diabetes may sometimes indicate this disease.

For people with diabetes, having blood glucose levels that unexpectedly become harder to manage could also be a sign of pancreatic cancer.

The link between diabetes and pancreatic cancer is complex. Diabetes increases the risk of developing this type of cancer, while pancreatic cancer can sometimes lead to diabetes.

In its early stages, this type of cancer can cause no symptoms. Doctors often diagnose it when it is more advanced.

Other risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • having obesity
  • being over 55 years of age
  • having cirrhosis or a Heliobacter pylori infection
  • smoking
  • exposure to chemicals in certain environments, such as the drycleaning or metalwork industries
  • being male
  • a family history of the disease
  • being African American

Research has shown that Black people are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than white individuals and that the survival rate is also lower. One reason for this could be disparities in access to healthcare and socioeconomic status.

People with cystic fibrosis can develop a type of insulin-requiring diabetes known as cystic fibrosis-related diabetes (CFRD).

In a person with cystic fibrosis, sticky mucus causes scar tissue to form on the pancreas. This scarring can prevent the organ from producing enough insulin.

A person with CFRD may not have the typical signs and symptoms of diabetes. For example, they are less likely to experience increased thirst and urination. For this reason, screening for CFRD is routine for people with cystic fibrosis.

Diabetes results from problems with the pancreas and insulin, as insufficient insulin can lead to high blood glucose.

Over time, persistently high glucose levels can cause serious complications. Monitoring and managing blood glucose levels can help reduce the risk of complications.

Diabetes can also occur with some chronic conditions, such as pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis.

A person could help prevent type 2 diabetes by not smoking if applicable, maintaining a moderate weight, eating a nutritious diet, and exercising regularly.

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are manageable health conditions, and lifestyle modifications and medications can help people manage their symptoms.