Located deep in the body, the pancreas is yellow and its structure and functions are rather complex. As usual, alcohol is the number one enemy of the pancreas.
Greek surgeon Herophilus who lived from 335-280 BC first identified the pancreas. Resembling a fish, the pancreas measures about 15 cm in length and 4 cm in width. It is located behind the stomach and is connected to the first section of the intestine which is called duodenum. It is surrounded by the spleen, liver and intestine. The wide part, referred to as the head of the pancreas, is positioned toward the centre of the abdomen; the middle portion is called the neck and the body of the pancreas; the thin end is called the tail and extends to the left side. The pancreas performs a dual function: the exocrine and endocrine functions.
Exocrine function simply means secreting something through a duct. The pancreas contains exocrine glands that produce enzymes important to digestion. When food enters the stomach, intestinal hormones (called cholecystokinin and secretin) stimulate the acinar cells in the pancreas to release three types of enzymes:
1.Proteolytic enzymes for protein digestion
2.Pancreatic amylase for carbohydrate digestion
3.Pancreatic lipase for fat digestion
These juices are released into a network of ducts that culminate in the main pancreatic duct. The pancreatic duct and the common bile duct meet to form the ampulla of Vater. It is located at the first portion of the small intestine, called the duodenum. The common bile duct originates in the liver and the gall bladder and produces another important digestive juice called bile. The pancreatic enzymes and bile that are released into the duodenum help the body to digest fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.
The endocrine function simply refers to the secreting of hormones. The part of the pancreas that performs this function comprises millions of cell clusters. Known as Islets of Langerhans, they can be classified into four types of cells based on the hormones they secrete. Alpha cells secrete glucagons; beta cells produce insulin; delta cells secrete somatostatin, and, finally, PP cells produce pancreatic polypeptide.
All these four hormones are secreted directly into the blood stream. They work together with the nervous system to so that the body’s various tissues and organs work together in a effective and accurate way. For example, as and when necessary, insulin is released to lower the glucose level in the blood; on the other hand, glucagons is produced to elevate the level of glucose.
Trouble with the pancreas can lead to many health problems. Pancreatitis or inflammation of the pancreas is a common condition. It can be acute or chronic. In acute pancreatitis, the organ suddenly becomes swollen, and it empties its digestive enzymes into the bloodstream. The results are severe pain in the upper left part of the body, fever, shortness of breath, kidney problems, and even death resulting from infection, respiratory failure, bleeding or other complications. After an acute attack, a patient may either completely recover or suffer several more episodes, leading to chronic pancreatitis. Symptoms include persistent abdominal pain, intolerance of food and nausea.
A more deadly disease is pancreatic cancer, since it is almost always fatal. Indeed, it is the most lethal of all cancers, but fortunately, it is not common. Many pancreatic cancer patients exhibit minimal or no symptoms until in the late, less curable stages. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are the same as those for chronic pancreatitis.
Cystic fibrosis is a hereditary disorder in which thick, sticky mucus block the tubes in the pancreas. As a result, the digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas can’t reach the small intestine. Without them, the intestines can’t fully absorb fats and proteins. This can cause vitamin deficiency and malnutrition because nutrients leave the body unused. It also can cause bulky stools, intestinal gas, a swollen belly from severe constipation, and pain or discomfort.