What Does the Pancreas Do?

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Human pancreas, artwork

Your pancreas is a small pear-shaped gland, about the size of your fist. It’s located behind your stomach, below the liver, and next to the small intestine. The pancreas plays a vital role in keeping you healthy by helping you digest your food and maintain healthy blood sugar (glucose) levels. Learn more about your pancreas and conditions that may affect it.

Pancreas Helps You Digest Food

Your pancreas produces enzymes that help you digest your food. These digestive enzymes travel from the pancreas and empty into the small intestine—specifically the duodenum—via the pancreatic duct. This is the same area where bile from the liver enters the digestive system. Both help break down the fats in the food and drink you consumed.

Pancreas Helps Manage Blood Sugar Levels

The pancreas produces multiple hormones that influence appetite and metabolism. Chief among them are insulin and glucagon that work together to help control blood sugar (glucose) levels. When you consume sugars, the pancreas releases insulin to lower your blood sugar levels. Glucagon is released to raise blood sugar levels when they drop too low. Together these two hormones work to maintain a constant safe blood sugar level, no matter what you consume. When your body can no longer regulate blood sugar levels, diabetes can occur. There are three types of diabetes.

  • Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition in which the pancreas stops producing insulin or produces too little to effectively manage blood sugar levels. This type of diabetes is also known as juvenile or insulin-dependent diabetes. Treatment typically involves regular monitoring, insulin therapy, diet considerations, and exercise.
  • Type 2 diabetes is also a chronic condition in which the pancreas does produce insulin but the body isn’t able to use it properly to manage blood sugar levels. Type 2 diabetes is often first treated with lifestyle changes because diet changes and exercise can be effective in helping reduce blood sugar levels in many people. Medications, in pill and injection form, can help your body use the insulin, as well. Some people with type 2 diabetes do need to take insulin if the oral medications don’t work well enough.
  • Gestational diabetes only occurs in pregnant women and most of the time, it goes away after the baby is born. However, women who had gestational diabetes are at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Overtime, untreated high blood sugar levels from type 1 or type 2 diabetes, can damage organs and tissues and cause other health problems. It’s important to manage your diabetes with diet, exercise, medication and insulin therapy according to your treatment plan. Researchers are working on pancreas transplants as well.

Other Pancreas Conditions

Aside from diabetes, your pancreas can be affected by other conditions or diseases including pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed. It can be acute, meaning it comes on suddenly, or chronic, which means it does not go away and it gets worse over time. Acute pancreatitis is most commonly caused by gallstones or excessive alcohol consumption. Severe cases can be life threatening. Chronic pancreatitis can run in families, but it can also be caused by blockages in the duct where pancreatic enzymes leave the pancreas. It can also be triggered by very high triglyceride levels, or by an autoimmune response—when your body starts to attack the cells in the pancreas. People with chronic pancreatitis are advised to stop consuming alcohol to lessen the severity and slow down the disease progress.

Pancreatic cancer is not common. It makes up about 3% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States, affecting about 57,000 people in the U.S. each year. Because there are no symptoms in its early stages, pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed in advanced stages, when it is much more difficult to treat. Even when detected early, the 5-year survival rate, the number of people who survive five years after diagnosis, is only 34%.

Signs and Symptoms of Conditions Affecting the Pancreas

The signs and symptoms of diabetes are related to constantly elevated levels of sugar in your blood. Symptoms of type 1 diabetes include:

  • Increase in hunger
  • Weight loss despite increased appetite
  • Blurry vision
  • Slow healing cuts and bruises

Symptoms for type 2 diabetes are similar, but also may include a tingling or pain in your feet or hands.

Symptoms for acute pancreatitis include:

  • Pain in the upper abdominal area that can radiate to your back
  • Abdominal pain that worsens after eating
  • Tenderness when you touch your abdomen

Chronic pancreatitis may cause the same abdominal pain, as well as unintentional weight loss, and smelly, oily bowel movements.

Pancreatic cancer symptoms may be similar to acute pancreatitis, and also include:

  • Jaundice, yellowing skin and whites of the eyes
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling full even after small meals
  • Abdominal bloating and gas
  • Itchy skin
  • Dark yellow, almost brownish urine
  • Edema (swelling) in the legs

Taking Care of Your Pancreas

Not all pancreas-related conditions are preventable, such as type 1 diabetes. However, you can minimize your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, pancreatitis, and pancreatic cancer by: maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet, reducing your sugar and fat intake, and avoiding drinking alcohol in excess. Keeping a healthy weight can also help keep type 2 diabetes at bay.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Mar 30
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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