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An Insight Into the Structure and Functions of the Pancreas

Pancreas Function
Pancreas is an important organ of the digestive system. The function of the pancreas is greatly influenced by the food you eat. Here's more about its functioning and how a healthy diet helps prevent problems related to the pancreas.
Leena Palande
Last Updated: Mar 7, 2018
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The pancreas is placed deep in the abdomen. It is surrounded by stomach, duodenum, liver, spleen and gallbladder. Pancreas is often neglected until problems occur. It lies behind the stomach and is encircled by the duodenum (small intestine). Every year, more and more people are being diagnosed with pancreas problems. Development of a tumor in the pancreas can affect the function of the digestive system, seriously. It is difficult to trace a pancreatic tumor because of its location (near to your back). Usually, when the tumors affect the surrounding organs, then only certain tests are ordered and the tumors are detected.
Pancreas Structure
Pancreas structure
Pancreas consists of glandular tissue and a system of ducts. The main pancreatic duct carries the pancreatic fluid to the duodenum. The main duct has many small branches and it joins the bile duct at the end. The endocrine (endo = within) as well as the exocrine (exo = outward) parts of pancreas play an important role in the process of digestion.
Islets of langerhans
The 'islets of Langerhans' constitute the endocrine part of pancreas. Here, millions of cells are arranged in clusters and cords. They are classified as α, β, δ, and PP or delta cells that release pancreatic hormones glucagon, insulin, somatostatin, and pancreatic polypeptide into the bloodstream, respectively. These hormones help maintain blood sugar at the normal level. Glucagon helps raise the blood sugar when necessary, while insulin stimulates the cells to use the glucose in blood. As you know, glucose is the main source of energy. Scarcity of insulin or insulin resistance leads to diabetes. The hormone 'somatostatin' regulates the secretion of glucagon and insulin.
Acinar cells or the exocrine cells produce the pancreatic juice that contains digestive enzymes. These cells are connected to the pancreatic ducts through which the juice is poured into the food. Pancreatic juice promotes absorption of nutrients in the small intestine. The digestive enzymes enhance the process of digestion of fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
Function of the Pancreas
Function of pancreas
The esophagus carries the food from the mouth and empties it into the stomach. Stomach acids break down the food and then the food is passed on to the duodenum (first part of the small intestine). Here, the bile and the pancreatic juice aid the process of digestion. The pancreatic enzymes neutralize the stomach acids.
A mixture of proteins and sodium bicarbonate produced in the pancreas helps reduce the acidity of the food (chyme) entering into the duodenum. The enzymes and sodium bicarbonate are constantly released by the pancreas but they are released in very small quantities (about 0.2 - 0.3 ml per minute). As soon as food is sensed in the small intestine, pancreas starts secreting greater amount of pancreatic fluid (about 3 ml per minute).

A number of factors trigger the pancreas to empty enzymes into the first part of the small intestine. These include visual perception of the food, smell, taste and ingestion of food, stomach distention as it fills with food, presence of various gastrointestinal hormones, etc. A particular type of peptide called pancreatic polypeptide (PP) produced by the pancreas, then curbs enzyme secretion. The vagal nerve triggers the secretion of PP. Studies show that certain foods inhibit enzyme secretion. Fatty acids and monoglycerides greatly influence pancreatic enzyme secretion. Thus, what you eat influences pancreas function greatly.

Abnormal blood glucose levels can seriously affect the function of important organs like brain, kidneys and liver. As mentioned above, pancreatic hormones regulate blood glucose concentration and ensure proper functioning of these key organs.
Pancreas Dysfunction
A person is said to have type 1 diabetes, when his/her immune system itself attacks the insulin-secreting cells in the pancreas. Pancreas being a storehouse of digestive enzymes, any injury to pancreas can adversely affect the process of digestion. Injured or punctured pancreas needs prompt medical attention. Inflammation of the pancreas is referred to as pancreatitis. A person needs to follow a pancreatitis diet if he/she is diagnosed with pancreatitis. Increased pressure within pancreatic ducts can lead to ruptured duct/s. Leakage of pancreatic juices can result in a pancreatic self-digestion. Tumors in endocrine pancreas are rare. Malignant tumors in exocrine pancreas are usually detected in the advanced stage. So, pancreatic cancer prognosis and life expectancy are very poor.

Pancreatitis can be chronic or acute. More research is needed to establish the relationship between alcohol abuse and pancreatic damage but statistics show that mortality rate of patients with alcoholic pancreatitis is about 36% higher than that of the general population. Severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, swollen or tender abdomen, rapid pulse rate, fever, sweating are some of the common symptoms of inflamed pancreas. Any damage to the islets of Langerhans during a pancreatitis attack can lead to diabetes. In chronic pancreatitis, poor absorption of food results in weight loss. Genetics, gallstones, or even nutritional deficiencies can lead to inflammation of pancreas and it can prove to be fatal. Pancreatitis patients need immediate medical attention. They need to consult a doctor for proper pancreatitis diet. A diet rich in fiber (containing whole grain products, fruits and vegetables) and low in sugar (low glycemic diet) supports and improves the function of the pancreas.
Those who have already experienced pancreatitis attacks should quit alcohol, follow the specially designed diet, and take prescribed medication to lower the intensity and frequency of pancreatitis attacks.