An Overview of the Pancreas
Understanding Insulin and Diabetes
- The pancreas maintains the body’s blood glucose (sugar) balance.
- Primary hormones of the pancreas include insulin and glucagon, and both regulate blood glucose.
- Diabetes is the most common disorder associated with the pancreas.
The pancreas is unique in that it’s both an endocrine and exocrine gland. In other words, the pancreas has the dual function of secreting hormones into blood (endocrine) and secreting enzymes through ducts (exocrine).
The pancreas belongs to the endocrine and digestive systems—with most of its cells (more than 90%) working on the digestive side. However, the pancreas performs the vital duty of producing hormones—most notably insulin—to maintain the balance of blood glucose (sugar) and salt in the body.
Without this balance, your body is susceptible to serious complications, such as diabetes.
Anatomy of the Pancreas
The pancreas is a 6 inch-long flattened gland that lies deep within the abdomen, between the stomach and the spine. It is connected to the duodenum, which is part of the small intestine.
Only about 5% of the pancreas is comprised of endocrine cells. These cells are clustered in groups within the pancreas and look like little islands of cells when examined under a microscope. These groups of pancreatic endocrine cells are known as pancreatic islets or more specifically, islets of Langerhans (named after the scientist who discovered them).
Hormones of the Pancreas
The production of pancreatic hormones, including insulin, somatostatin, gastrin, and glucagon, play an important role in maintaining sugar and salt balance in our bodies.
Primary hormones secreted by the pancreas include:
- Gastrin: This hormone aids digestion by stimulating certain cells in the stomach to produce acid.
- Glucagon: Glucagon helps insulin maintain normal blood glucose by working in the opposite way of insulin. It stimulates your cells to release glucose, and this raises your blood glucose levels.
- Insulin: This hormone regulates blood glucose by allowing many of your body’s cells to absorb and use glucose. In turn, this drops blood glucose levels.
- Somatostatin: When levels of other pancreatic hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, get too high, somatostatin is secreted to maintain a balance of glucose and/or salt in the blood.
- Vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP): This hormone helps control water secretion and absorption from the intestines by stimulating the intestinal cells to release water and salts into the intestines.
Diseases and Disorders of the Pancreas
Problems in the production or regulation of pancreatic hormones will cause complications related to blood sugar imbalance.
Of all the diseases and disorders of the pancreas, the most well-known is diabetes.
- Type 1 diabetes: If you have type 1 diabetes, then your body doesn’t produce any insulin to handle the glucose in your body. Insulin deficiency causes a range of complications, so people with type 1 diabetes have to take insulin to help their body use glucose appropriately.
To learn more, read our article about type 1 diabetes.
- Type 2 diabetes: Type 2 diabetes is much more prevalent than type 1. People with type 2 diabetes may be able to produce insulin, but their bodies don’t use it correctly. They might also be unable to produce enough insulin to handle the glucose in their body. Lifestyle choices, such as diet and exercise, play a major role in managing and preventing type 2 diabetes.
To learn more, read our article about type 2 diabetes.
Other common diseases and disorders associated with the pancreas are:
- Hyperglycemia: This condition is caused by abnormally high blood glucose levels. It can be caused by overproduction of the hormone glucagon. To learn more, read our article about hyperglycemia.
- Hypoglycemia: Conversely, hypoglycemia is caused by low blood glucose levels. It is caused by a relative overproduction of insulin. To learn more, read our article about hypoglycemia.
Despite the fact that the great majority of pancreatic cells are devoted to digestive function, the endocrine cells play a major role in your overall health. By regulating your blood sugar levels, the pancreatic hormones are directly related to some of the most common diseases of today, including diabetes.