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What is the Pancreas and What Does it Do?

What is the Pancreas and What Does it Do?

When you ask people the question, “What is the pancreas?” most people will probably not know the answer. Despite being an often overlooked and misunderstood body part for most people, the pancreas plays a big role when it comes to digestion and keeping blood sugar levels under control.

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a small organ located below the stomach and is connected with the small intestine. It is a unique organ in that it can produce both enzymes that aid in digestion, as well as hormones that help with converting sugar into energy.

Because of its location inside the body, diagnosing illnesses of the pancreas can sometimes be difficult. This is because it’s hard to feel it since it’s so deep inside the body.

In the case of tumors or pancreatic cancer, people only notice it when the tumors have grown large enough to affect other organs.

What does the pancreas do?

The pancreas serves two main functions:

  1. First would be to release enzymes that can help with digestion. These enzymes are produced by exocrine cells, which are then sent out through the pancreatic ducts into the small intestine. There, the enzymes aid the intestine in digesting food.
  2. The second function of the pancreas is a bit different. It can also produce hormones, which are generated by the endocrine cells. These hormones include insulin and glucagon, which are both very important in keeping healthy levels of sugar in the blood.

Despite being important in digestion and managing blood sugar, it’s possible for a person to live without their pancreas. In the case of pancreatic cancer or chronic pancreatitis, the pancreas can sometimes be taken out completely in order to treat cancer.

However, living without the pancreas can be difficult, as the patient would need constant insulin shots to manage blood sugar levels, as well as digestive enzymes to aid in digestion. Even then, the life expectancy for a person without it is around 7 years. It’s even less for people who have had pancreatic cancer.

what is the pancreas

What are the common illnesses that affect the pancreas?

Here are some common illnesses that can affect a person’s pancreas:

Acute pancreatitis

This type of pancreatitis causes severe pain and can last for just a few days. Patients can also experience severe abdominal pain and elevated levels of pancreatic enzymes in the blood. The most common causes of acute pancreatitis would be drinking too much alcohol, gallstones, trauma, infections, and side effects of medication.

Patients with acute pancreatitis usually recover from their condition within a few days.

Chronic pancreatitis

On the other hand, chronic pancreatitis is a type of pancreatitis that can last a long time. In people with chronic pancreatitis, their pancreas suffers from long-term inflammation, which over time, can cause damage to the pancreas.

Aside from pain, the other common symptoms are oily stool, malnutrition, and sudden weight loss. As the disease progresses, it can impair the function of the pancreas and cause a person to suffer from diabetes.

Chronic pancreatitis can be caused by drinking too much alcohol, cystic fibrosis, and hereditary disorders that affect the pancreas.

4 Warning Signs of Pancreatitis

Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is a difficult disease to treat. This form of cancer is actually resistant to most forms of treatment, and patients with pancreatic cancer usually don’t notice symptoms during the early stages of the disease.

When pancreatic cancer is detected, it is usually in the latter stages. Because of this, the survival rate of pancreatic cancer is also very low, with around 5% to 10% of patients surviving within 5 years of diagnosis. This makes it one of the most fatal forms of cancer.

Key Takeaways

Despite being a lesser-known organ, it does a lot in our daily lives. Getting regular checkups and making sure you are eating healthy and avoiding alcohol are ways to make sure that your pancreas stays healthy and free from disease.

Learn more about Digestive Health here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


The Digestive Process: What Is the Role of Your Pancreas in Digestion? | Johns Hopkins Medicine, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/the-digestive-process-what-is-the-role-of-your-pancreas-in-digestion#:~:text=It%20is%20located%20inside%20your,digestive%20system%20by%20making%20hormones., Accessed December 11

What Is The Pancreas?, https://pathology.jhu.edu/pancreas/BasicOverview1.php?area=ba, Accessed December 11

The Pancreas and Its Functions | Columbia University Department of Surgery, https://columbiasurgery.org/pancreas/pancreas-and-its-functions, Accessed December 11

What Does the Pancreas Do for the Human Body? | UPMC HealthBeat, https://share.upmc.com/2015/09/what-does-the-pancreas-do-for-the-human-body/, Accessed December 11

Common Disorders of the Pancreas – The National Pancreas Foundation, https://pancreasfoundation.org/patient-information/about-the-pancreas/common-disorders-of-the-pancreas/, Accessed December 11, 2020

Pancreatic Cancer Prognosis | Johns Hopkins Medicine, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/pancreatic-cancer/pancreatic-cancer-prognosis#:~:text=Compared%20with%20many%20other%20cancers,just%205%20to%2010%20percent., Accessed December 11, 2020

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Written by Jan Alwyn Batara Updated May 25
Fact Checked by Hello Doctor Medical Panel