What is the pancreas and what does it do?

The pancreas is located in the abdomen, partially behind the stomach and partially behind the small intestine. It is long and flat, with the tail end of the organ pointing towards the left side of the body.

It is part of the digestive system and also helps to control the level of glucose in the blood.

The functions performed by the pancreas are directly linked to both the exocrine system and endocrine system:

  • The endocrine system refers to the organs in the body that make or distribute hormones. Hormones send signals to different parts of the body to make sure that they are working as they should. The pancreas secretes insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream in order to regulate blood sugar.
  • As part of the exocrine system, the pancreas secretes enzymes through the pancreatic duct into the duodenum. The enzymes released by the pancreas (in combination with other enzymes) help to digest carbohydrates, fats and proteins so that these nutrients can be absorbed by the digestive system.

What conditions can affect it?

Pancreatitis

This condition refers to inflammation of the organ. It can occur on an acute or chronic basis.

Signs of pancreatitis include:

  • upper abdominal pain
  • fever
  • radiating abdominal pain towards the back
  • abdominal pain after eating
  • abdominal tenderness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • unexpected weight loss
  • and foul smelling or oily stools.

Pancreatitis can occur when digestive enzymes produced in the pancreas become active before they leave the organ, causing irritation. If scar tissue forms in the pancreas, this can lead to loss of function, which in turn may increase the risk of diabetes and digestion problems.

Pancreatitis can also occur as a result of alcoholism, smoking, injury to the abdominal area, gallstones, cystic fibrosis and other conditions. In some cases the exact cause may not be clear.

If you are experiencing abdominal pain you should seek immediate advice from your doctor. Pancreatitis can lead to complications such as sepsis, abscesses, or pseudo-cysts.

Gallstones

The gallbladder is responsible for collecting bile (a digestive substance) produced by the liver. In some cases, small stones (gallstones) can develop if the balance of chemicals which make up bile become upset.

It’s possible for these stones to block bile passing in and out, and this can cause tissues in the gallbladder, and the pancreas, to become irritated.

Common symptoms of gallstones are:

  • stomach discomfort or pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • and jaundice.

Diabetes

In type-1 diabetes, the body’s immune system attacks insulin-producing beta cells, so that the pancreas is no longer able to produce enough insulin to control blood sugar levels.

In type-2 diabetes, the pancreas is unable to produce enough insulin as the body builds up a resistance to the hormone. This means that blood sugar levels can spiral out of control. Diabetes symptoms will begin to appear when the pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels in check; however they may not always be noticeable during earlier stages.

For this reason, it is important to get tested for diabetes regularly if you have one or more risk factors, such as:

  • if you’re over 40
  • if you have high blood pressure
  • if you have a family history of the condition
  • or have a South Asian, African-Caribbean or Black African ethnic background.

Pancreatic cancer

Tumors can develop in the pancreas if cells grow uncontrollably or abnormally.

The presence of a tumor may not be apparent as symptoms tend to develop slowly.

When they do appear, symptoms can include:

  • pain in the centre of the abdomen or back
  • jaundice
  • indigestion
  • unexplained weight loss
  • blood clots
  • and changes in bowel movements.

Please be aware that these symptoms can also be caused by many other non-cancerous, less serious conditions. But if you do have any symptoms that give you cause for concern, you should arrange to see your doctor.

How are pancreatic conditions treated?

The treatment required will depend on the underlying condition responsible, and its severity.

A bout of acute pancreatitis may require hospitalisation so that fluids, oxygen and pain relief can be administered. You may be advised to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink and/or make changes to your diet.

Dietary changes and prescription medicine

In diabetes, lifestyle adjustments and treatment will usually be required. Dietary changes can help in the management of the condition. Type-1 diabetics may need to inject insulin on a regular basis; whereas those with type-2 may need to take medicines that help to maximise insulin efficiency and keep blood sugar under control.

Gallbladder removal

If gallstones are the cause of pancreatitis then doctors may wish to carry out a procedure known as an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This is where a small camera is passed via the mouth and into the stomach in order to remove the stones. The gallbladder isn’t essential, so the recommended option in many cases where the organ cause problems is to have it surgically removed.

Pancreatectomy

Partial or total surgical removal of the pancreas is also an option in cases where it becomes severely damaged. However in such cases patients are likely to go on to develop diabetes, so changes to their diet and lifestyle and ongoing treatment will be necessary.

How to keep your pancreas healthy

Not all conditions affecting the pancreas can be prevented, but the two most common causes of pancreatitis are: conditions are linked to excess alcohol intake; and the presence of gallstones.

Therefore you should aim to follow a lifestyle that minimises the risk posed by these two factors.

  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet. Try to avoid foods high in saturated fats as these can lead to a build up in cholesterol which can result in gallstones. Make sure that your diet includes a variety of whole grains, fruit and vegetables.
  • Limit your alcohol intake and don’t exceed the NHS lower risk guidelines.
  • Don’t smoke. It is thought that one in three cases of pancreatic cancer are linked to the use of tobacco products.
  • Exercise regularly. Those who are overweight or obese are more at risk of developing gallstones, so it’s important (for this reason and a host of others) to stay active.
  • Avoid crash diets, where small amounts of calories are consumed, as rapid weight loss may be linked to an increased risk of gallstones.