What does the Pancreas do for you?

By Dr Harold Gunatillake - Health Writer

Pancreas is elongated tapered organ the shape of a banana, located at the back of the abdominal cavity behind the stomach. On the right side is the head and the first part of the small gut the duodenum extending from the stomach, encircles the head of the pancreas.

The pancreas in addition to its head has a body and tail segments. The bile duct which conveys bile for digestion of dietetic fat including cholesterol, runs through the head of the pancreas to open into the second part of the duodenum. The main pancreatic duct also joins the common bile duct close to the duodenal gut, expanding into an ampulla.

Let’s talk about the purpose of the pancreatic organ in the body
Two functions of the pancreas are:
Endocrine- means the enzymes enter the blood stream directly from the gland, like insulin a chemical (hormone) that regulate blood sugar. The gland produces glucagon also to control and regulate the blood sugar.
Exocrine functions: The pancreas produces enzymes that help digest our food. They pass through the pancreatic duct into the gut to aid in digestion of food. They are protected in capsules to prevent damage to the pancreas and cause inflammation (pancreatitis), in case they rupture. They are-pancreatic amylase that breakdown carbohydrates. Protease breakdown proteins into amino acids. Lipase breaks down fat.

These exocrine enzymes are wrapped in a protective layer while they are in the pancreas to reach the gut. Once they are out of the pancreas the protective layer is removed and the enzymes become active. The gland makes about 2.2 pints of enzymes a day for the digestion of regular three meals you consume. About 5 percent of the secretion is insulin secreted in the islet cells, which regulates the sugar level in the blood in addition to other functions.

“Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency
If the pancreas does not make enough enzymes that your body needs to break down and absorb nutrients and can’t absorb fats, some vitamins and minerals from foods, is referred to as Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). You will pass undigested food into the colon and you will become weak and malnourished within a few days.
There are pancreatic enzymes in drug form to be given in such situations.

The protease enzyme the gland secretes include trypsin and chymotrypsin to breakdown proteins.

Amylase is an enzyme secreted by the pancreas to breakdown carbohydrates. When amylose content in some foods like basmati rice is high, the digestion and absorption get slower and hence the rice has a lower glycaemic index of 59, suitable for people having diabetes. Also, the amylose content is high in long grain rice like the Australian produce ‘Dongara’. When the amylose content is high when cooked rice is firm and dry.

The round grain sambas have an intermediate amylose content tends to be softer and stickier, and waxy rice has a zero-amylose content and is often referred to as sticky rice or Jasmine rice. These rices get absorbed fast and the glycaemic index is over 80.

The salivary glands that secrete saliva also produce salivary amylase which breaks down amylose in the chewed carbs into smaller chains of glucose, called dextrin and maltose. Amylase seem to work in the alkaline media and no digestion of carbs occur in the acidic media in the stomach.

In the small gut pancreatic amylase breaks down starch which has many molecules of glucose into a simple sugar- glucose.

Enzymes Trypsin and Chymotrypsin
Trypsin breakdown proteins into smaller peptides and the latter are then further hydrolysed into amino acids.
Chymotrypsin is selective. They select aromatic amino acids such as phenylalanine, tryptophan and tyrosine.

Lipase is another enzyme made in the pancreas and it break down fats into fatty acids and cholesterol. They participate in the role of digestion, transport and processing of dietary lipids, such as triglycerides, fats and oils used in cooking and frying.

Insulin secretion
The islet cells secrete insulin and other hormones. Insulin regulates the blood sugar level in non-diabetics and diabetics may need to be supplemented to maintain a blood sugar within the normal range.

In diabetes, insufficient insulin is secreted, or more will be formed if there is a condition called insulin resistance. Obesity seems to be one of the main causes of insulin resistance. By slimming you increase your insulin sensitivity. When the blood sugar falls the pancreas also secrete and release a hormone called glucagon.
Glucagon helps to maintain the blood sugar level by releasing sugar from the liver stores. You will now realise the importance of having a well-functioning pancreas for digestion and absorption of food for health and wellbeing.

Your pancreas can get inflamed. This condition could be acute or chronic. Acute could be due to a minute stone obstructing the pancreatic duct. Intense pain in the upper belly (epigastrium) could be due to acute pancreatitis. It can also be caused due to a gallstone obstructing the common bile and pancreatic duct near the entrance of ducts to the duodenum.

Other causes of acute pancreatitis are medications, autoimmune disease, infections, trauma, metabolic disorders and after surgery.

Chronic pancreatitis is a situation where the pancreatic enzymes start working within the gland without being released to the gut. Heavy drinking could be a factor.
Increased levels of triglycerides in your blood or an immune system disorder can also cause chronic pancreatitis.

Cystic fibrosis
In cystic fibrosis the body makes unusually thick sticky mucus due to a genetic disorder affecting mostly the lungs, pancreas, liver, kidneys and intestine. Long term, the person finds it difficult to breath, and coughing up thick mucus. The condition is diagnosed by doing a sweat test and genetic testing. The condition is treated with antibiotics and pancreatic enzyme replacement. Life expectancy is less than 40 years.

Early sigs include salty sweat, poor growth and weight gain. Constant coughing and wheezing are features. The other inherited condition of the pancreas is Schwachman-Diamond syndrome. In this condition less pancreatic enzymes are secreted due to missing cells in the pancreas.

Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is quite common among Sri Lankans. Diets high in red meat consumption and eating fried foods and nitrosamines may increase risk of cancer. Diets high in fruits and vegetables seem to reduce the risk of pancreatic cnacer. Cancer of the pancreas could occur following pancreatitis, diabetes, family history of genetic syndromes that can increase cancer risk, including a BRCA2 gene mutation. High blood sugar raises the risk of pancreatic cancer- one of the deadliest forms of the disease. Life threatening tumours are more common in people with hyperglycaemia. Research has shown that high blood sugar could increase the risk of pancreatic cancer/ A study of more than 25million people found the killer disease is more common in adults with hyperglycaemia

Earl symptoms of cancer of the pancreas are:
Yellow discolouration of the eyes due to jaundice caused due to an obstruction in the biliary canals.
Weight loss and poor appetite and upper abdominal pain are early symptoms.
Research has shown that obese men and women have a high chance of getting pancreatic cancer. Chronic heavy alcohol use is also a cause of both pancreatitis and cancer.

Final Note
Hope you enjoyed watching this you tu.be. It is important that you grasp the essence and add on to enrich your lifestyle. All cancers are preventable, except those ones that are hereditary.

It is our tasty addictive dietary indulges and sedentary lifestyles, getting obese and lack of exercise that are main culprits for these dreaded diseases.
Walking daily 10,000 steps may reduce the incidence. Try and eat home cooked foods, with less salt, less oil and unprocessed.

Check out the YouTube video on this topic by clicking here

Copyright © 2002 ~ 2019 Harold Gunatillake