When you think of organs of the body that serve an important function, usually, the heart, liver, and lungs get all the credit. The pancreas, however, may be one of the unsung heroes of the human organ world, regulating the production of certain chemicals that aid various, important bodily functions. The pancreas is a flattened, oblong gland located deep within the abdomen. It is situated between the stomach and the spine, partially behind the stomach and curves down into the small intestine. This gland is often overlooked and many people don’t know its function, but it is an integral part of the digestive system. It produces important enzymes and hormones that help break down foods.

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What Does the Pancreas Do?

A healthy pancreas is able to produce the right chemicals at the right times in the correct quantities in order to properly digest the food we eat.

Food is carried from the mouth to the stomach by the esophagus. The esophagus descends from the mouth and through an opening in the diaphragm.

Immediately after passing through the diaphragm’s opening, the esophagus empties into the stomach where food is broken down by acid that the stomach produces. From the stomach, food flows directly into the first part of the small intestine, called the duodenum. Enzymes produced by the pancreas enter the digestive system here and are secreted into the duodenum to further break down food after it leaves the stomach.

Pancreatic Cells

The pancreas has two main types of cells that perform different functions. They are the endocrine cells and the exocrine cells.

The endocrine cells secrete hormones like insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. These hormones work together to maintain proper levels of sugar in the blood. The body uses this sugar for energy.

The exocrine cells produce chemicals that are secreted in the duodenum and aid in the digestion of food.

Learn More About Pancreatic Diseases

David Whitcomb, MD, PhD, Chief of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at UPMC discusses the pancreas, pancreatic diseases, and the treatment options available at the UPMC Pancreas Center of Excellence.

If you are concerned that you or a loved one may have a disorder related to the pancreas, please visit the Pancreas and Biliary Center website, as part of the UPMC Digestive Health Care, or call 1-866-4GASTRO (427876).

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About Digestive Disorders

UPMC Digestive Health Care cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.