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What Does The Pancreas Do?

By , PhD, ELS

The pancreas is an organ that sits in the abdominal cavity behind the stomach and plays a role in both the digestive and endocrine system.

In the endocrine system, it is responsible for producing several hormones, such as insulin, glucagon, somatostatin and pancreatic polypeptide. Additionally, its exocrine function involves the secretion of digestive enzymes that aid the digestion and absorption of nutrients in the small intestine.

The Pancreas
  1. Head of pancreas
  2. Uncinate process
  3. Pancreatic notch
  4. Body of pancreas
  5. Anterior surface
  6. Inferior surface
  7. Superior margin
  8. Anterior margin
  9. Inferior margin
  10. Omental tuber
  11. Tail of pancreas
  12. Duodenum

Endocrine Function

There are many cell clusters in the pancreas referred to as islets of Langerhans that are responsible for the endocrine function of the organ. The islets are composed of groups or chains of endocrine cells, woven together to form a dense network. There are four types of cells in these islets, including:

  • α alpha cell that secrete glucagon
  • β beta cells that secrete insulin
  • Δ delta cells that secrete somatostatin
  • γ gamma cells that secrete pancreatic polypeptide

Each of these hormones plays an important role in the body and is essential for normal bodily functions to occur.

Of particular note, glucagon and insulin work together to maintain adequate glucose levels in the blood. Glucagon is secreted when there is low blood sugar concentration to increase the glucose content, whereas insulin is secreted when there is excess sugar to decrease the glucose in the blood.

For example, after a meal that causes the concentration of glucose in the blood to spike the pancreas produces insulin, which encourages the insulin to be broken down and used in the body. Conversely, when the glucose concentration falls such as during the night without eating, the pancreas produces glucagon to signal to the liver, muscle or fat cells to release sugar from the stored form.

Exocrine Function

The pancreas also plays a significant role in the digestive system as an exocrine gland. It secretes a fluid that is rich in enzymes needed to aid digestion in the small intestine. The digestive enzymes help to break down different nutrients from the diet, such as carbohydrates, lipids and proteins.

The part of the pancreas responsible for exocrine function consists of ducts in several clusters, known as acini. The secretions from the lumen of the acini build up in the intralobular duct and eventually drain into the duodenum, via the main pancreatic duct.

Several hormones including gastrin, cholecystokinin (CCK) and secretin regulate the process of digestive enzyme secretion. Cells in the stomach or duodenum release these hormones when sensory information detects the need for pancreatic juices.

For example, secretin initiates the release of bicarbonate ions, which are alkaline (pH >7) and assist the neutralization of stomach acid and chyme. Conversely, CCK hormone leads to the secretion of digestive enzymes that help to break down food, including:

  • protease for the digestion of protein
  • amylase for the digestion of carbohydrates
  • lipase for the digestion of lipids.

Together, the digestive enzymes released in the pancreatic juice aid in the process of breaking food down and absorption from the small intestine to be used in cells throughout the body.

References

Last Updated: Aug 24, 2015

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Comments
  1. LaDonna Erlewine LaDonna Erlewine United States says:

    What happens to the body if you dont have the pancreas?

  2. TINA DEFOE TINA DEFOE United States says:

    I WAS DIAGNOSED WITH AUTO IMMUNE ABOUT A YEAR AGO, NOT SURE WHICH KIND YET. I WAS TESTED FOR LUPUS BUT IT WAS NEGATIVE. COULD IT CAUSE NUMB TOES, MY TOES HAVE BEEN NUMB FOR 2 MONTHS, AND HANDS GO NUMB ABOUT EVRY COUPLE OF DAYS. PLEASE HELP....

  3. Ghulam Dauod Ghulam Dauod Islamic Republic of Pakistan says:

    I think the insulin is the best solution for diabetic patients.It is very near to natural system.

  4. Ana Ospina Ana Ospina Colombia says:

    buena tarea me sirvio de mucho Smile

  5. Teresa Panke Teresa Panke United States says:

    What is the size of the Pancreas?

  6. Janis Anderson Janis Anderson United States says:

    A very dear friend of ours has pancreatic cancer.  We are afraid because we don't know anything about it.  Now we know how crucial the pancreas is.  I have diabetes.  We now know how important the pancreas is

  7. Jose Ngash Jose Ngash Kenya says:

    which is the unique process to the pancreas

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News-Medical.Net.
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