The pancreas is an organ that is located in the abdomen behind the stomach. The proper functioning of the pancreas is essential to the digestion of food and the regulation of blood-glucose levels and cellular energy metabolism.
The “exocrine tissue” that surrounds the pancreas releases enzymes that aid in the digestion of partially digested food that is in transit from the stomach into the small intestine. The “head” of the pancreas is located at the junction of these two organs. Specific enzymes are produced by the pancreas to break down fats and digest proteins and carbohydrates.
Digestive enzyme secreting exocrine tissue makes up the majority of the volume of the pancreas(around 95%), with the other 5% devoted to producing insulin and glucagon, hormones that regulate blood sugar. Insulin helps to lower blood-glucose levels, and glucagon raises blood-glucose. Maintaining blood-glucose(homeostasis) within a balanced range (from around 72 – 110 mg/dL while fasting, and upwards of 140 mg/dL two hours after eating, for healthy individuals with a properly functioning pancreas, diabetics having a slightly adjusted targeted blood-glucose range) is essential to the functioning of many human organs, including the liver, kidneys and brain. These sections of the pancreas that secrete insulin and glucagon are endocrine cells that are referred to as the “islets of Langerhans,” named for the German pathologist Paul Langerhans who discovered them in 1869.
When the pancreas is not properly secreting insulin, sugar builds up in the blood and is not properly transported to other organs and muscles, depriving the body of energy and over time leading to the deterioration of many cells. This condition is known as type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, results when cells of the body become resistant to insulin, leading the pancreas to produce more and more of the hormone to try to maintain healthy blood-glucose levels, and eventually being unable to produce a sufficient amount. Consistently high blood glucose levels damage cells, including the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, and type 2 diabetes takes hold.
Resources and Further Reading:
More details about the pancreas:
Biography of Paul Langerhans:
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