What is the pancreas, and what is its purpose in our body? Most people are familiar with the name, but may not be familiar about what this gradular organ does. Essentially, your pancreas plays an important role in your digestive system by producing enzymes that help break down food in your intestines.
What Does the Pancreas Look Like?
Located right behind your stomach in the abdominal area, the pancreas is a gland that measures 6 to 10 inches long and extends horizontally across your abdomen. Its shape has been often compared to a fish because it has a large head and a small tail,1 and is divided into four parts:2
• Head: It is located on the right side of the abdomen where your stomach meets the duodenum, the first section of the small intestine.
• Neck: This is a thin section between the head and the body of the pancreas.
• Body: The middle part of the pancreas.
• Tail: This small tip is located on the left side of your abdomen, and sits very near the spleen.
The pancreas is actually comprised of two types of glands defined by their tissue names, the exocrine and endocrine tissues, but work together as one unit.3 The exocrine tissue comprises 95 percent of the pancreas and is responsible for producing the enzymes that help in food digestion.
The remaining 5 percent is composed of endocrine cells called "islets of Langerhans," which perform the important function of releasing hormones that control the amount of pancreatic enzymes produced, as well as to control blood sugar levels.
3 Pancreatic Enzymes That Aid in Food Digestion
Below are the three types of pancreatic enzymes responsible for digesting your food:4
Lipase works with bile to break down the fat in your food so it can be used by your body. If there is not enough of it in your system, you may experience diarrhea and fatty stools. Your body may not get the healthy fat it needs as well.
Protease helps break down proteins in your food and keeps your intestines free from bacteria, yeast and protozoa. If you have insufficient protease, you may have a higher risk for intestinal infections.
Amylase helps convert the carbohydrates in your food into sugar. Shortage of this enzyme may result in diarrhea due to the undigested starch in your colon.
Your pancreas works hard to produce these three types of enzymes, and can generate up to eight cups of these daily.5 However, if you're not careful with your dietary choices, your pancreas may suffer and you may develop pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis: A Serious Issue That You Should Be Aware Of
Basically, pancreatitis is a condition where your pancreas becomes swollen or inflamed, causing abdominal pain, vomiting and nausea. One of the common risk factors of pancreatitis is alcoholism. In fact, excessive alcohol intake accounts for 75 percent of chronic pancreatitis cases.6
Gallstones, solids typically formed from excess cholesterol in the gallbladder, are another common cause of pancreatitis. When the gallbladder empties itself, the gallstones will travel along the pancreatic duct and cause a blockage, thus leading to pancreatitis.7
Treatment for pancreatitis usually starts with fasting to help your pancreas rest from producing enzymes. Afterward, an endoscope may be used to perform various tasks, such as placing a stent on your pancreatic duct or removing gallstones.8 Surgery may be needed, especially if an abscess and decaying tissue have formed.9 Once you start recovering from treatment, healthy lifestyle changes should be adopted to help prevent your condition from becoming chronic.
This guide aims to educate you about pancreatitis: its causes and symptoms, treatment and prevention tips. However, the information presented here is not meant to help you treat pancreatitis alone. Pancreatitis is a serious matter that you must address by consulting with your doctor.