what-does-the-pancreas-do

You may not know it, but your pancreas has a big job to do.

Resting just behind the stomach, the pancreas cannot be seen or felt by touch. And, well, many people don’t really know what this organ does for the body.

But the pancreas plays a critical role in your overall health. Learn more about the pancreas’ functions, diseases, and treatment options.

What Is the Pancreas?

Located deep in the abdomen, the pancreas is responsible for producing several important hormones, including insulin, which controls the amount of sugar in your blood. The pancreas also produces the hormone glucagon, which works with insulin to balance your blood sugar levels.

Because of its location behind your stomach, it can be difficult to diagnose pancreatic tumors or cancer, as they can’t be felt like tumors under the skin or in breast tissue. This also helps explain why pancreatic diseases are usually not diagnosed until symptoms start to appear.

What hormones does the pancreas produce?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the pancreas produces digestive juices and hormones that help your body benefit from the food you eat. The pancreas also produces specialized hormones that help regulate a number of body functions.

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What Does the Pancreas Do?

This six-inch organ aids in digestion by making secretions of pancreatic juice that contain digestive enzymes. These enzymes help break down sugars, fats, and starches from foods. Every day, your pancreas makes about 8 ounces of enzyme-filled digestive juice.

The pancreas also creates essential hormones that balance appetite, stimulate stomach acids, and aid in regulating blood sugar. Hormones that are created in the pancreas travel through the bloodstream to deliver messages to the digestive system.

Common Pancreatic Diseases and Disorders

Pancreatic diseases can affect your whole body. Among the disease the pancreas is linked to are:

Diabetes

A typical pancreas is supposed to automatically produce the right amount of insulin to move glucose from the blood into the cells. In people with diabetes, the pancreas either produces little or no insulin or the cells do not respond to the insulin produced. The glucose builds up in the blood. There are two types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes: This is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin, the hormone needed to allow sugar to enter cells to produce critical energy.
  • Type 2 diabetes: This is a condition referred to as “insulin resistance,” in which your body does not use insulin properly. At first, the pancreas produces extra insulin to make up for it but, over time, the organ simply cannot keep producing enough insulin to stabilize your blood sugar levels.

Symptoms of diabetes

The symptoms of both type 1 and type 2 can include:

  • Blurry vision.
  • Cuts or sores that don’t heal well.
  • Extreme tiredness.
  • Frequent urination.
  • Increased thirst.
  • Weight loss.

Pancreatic disease

There are many other diseases and problems which may affect your pancreas in addition to diabetes, including:

  • Pancreatic cancer.
  • Pancreatitis, or inflammation in your pancreas.
  • Islet cell tumors, which can be cancerous or benign (not malignant).
  • Enlarged pancreas, where your pancreas is larger than it should be.

Pancreatic disease symptoms

Be on the lookout for these symptoms, which can warn of pancreatic disease:

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Tenderness when touching the abdomen.
  • Abdominal pain that radiates to your back.
  • Upper abdominal pain.

Pancreatic disease risk factors

In general, the following factors may increase your risk of developing pancreatic diseases or disorders:

  • Age — The risk increases with age.
  • Gender — More men are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer than women.
  • Race/ethnicity.
  • Smoking.
  • Obesity, poor diet, and heavy alcohol use.
  • Diabetes.
  • Family history.

Treatment for Pancreatic Disease and Other Pancreatic Conditions

Therapies for pancreatic diseases and disorders can vary depending on the condition. Some common treatments for disorders of the pancreas can include:

  • Pain medication.
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids.
  • Gallbladder removal.
  • Pancreatic surgery.

Can You Get a Pancreas Transplant?

The pancreas is a transplantable organ. By transplanting a healthy pancreas into your body, it can effectively cure diabetes by regulating your blood sugar levels, eliminating your need for insulin shots. These types of transplants are rarely done alone, as many people who need a pancreas transplant also benefit from a kidney transplant.

UPMC Transplant services have more than 30 years of experience and has pioneered the field of transplantation. To learn more about pancreas transplants and other transplant information please visit the UPMC Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program online.

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

About Digestive Disorders

The UPMC Digestive Disorders Center 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.