What Does the Pancreas Do?
You may not know it, but your pancreas has a big job to do.
Resting just behind the stomach, this organ cannot be seen or felt by touch. And many people don’t really know what it does for the body.
The pancreas plays a critical role in your overall health.
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What Is the Pancreas?
The pancreas is both a gland and an organ, and is a key part of the digestive system.
Where is thepancreas?
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.
Due to its location behind the stomach, it can be difficult to diagnose pancreatic tumors or cancers because they can’t be felt like tumors under the skin or in breast tissue. This location also explains why pancreatic diseases often are not diagnosed until symptoms start to appear.
What hormones does the pancreas produce?
The pancreas produces the hormone glucagon, which boosts blood sugar levels when they are low, and insulin, which balances your blood sugar levels when they are high.
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.
How big is the pancreas?
The average pancreas is about 6 inches long, or approximately the length of your hand.
What Does the Pancreas Do in Digestion?
This abdominal organ aids in digestion by making secretions of pancreatic juices 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 diseases the pancreas is linked to are:
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 too little or no insulin or the cells do not respond to the insulin produced. The glucose builds up in the blood.
- Type 1 diabetes — 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 — 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.
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 malignant (cancerous) or benign (not cancerous).
- 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:
- 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.
- Obesity, poor diet, and heavy alcohol use.
- 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 Live Without a Pancreas?
It is possible to live without a pancreas; however, the chemicals and hormones produced by the pancreas will need to be replaced with medications. Doctors rarely remove the entire pancreas unless the patient is experiencing severe pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis.
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.