What Does the Pancreas Do and How to Keep It Healthy
The pancreas is part of the digestive tract that secretes essential fluids to aid digestion. People with a damaged or malfunctioning pancreas usually develop severe and troublesome conditions associated with digestive problems.
What Does the Pancreas Do?
The pancreas is an oblong, flattened gland that plays a role in two functions in the body:
- Endocrine system – the pancreas produces hormones, such as insulin and glucagon. Insulin controls how much glucose is in the bloodstream when levels get too high, while glucagon controls blood glucose when levels get too low.
- Exocrine system – the pancreas produces digestive enzymes and fluids that break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats into smaller elements before they can be absorbed in the intestine and easily converted into energy.
The pancreas also plays a role in diabetes, a lifelong health condition that occurs when a person’s blood glucose, also called blood sugar, is too high. Too much glucose in the blood can cause devastating illnesses like heart disease, nerve damage, eye problems and kidney disease.
Where Is the Pancreas Located?
The pancreas is behind the stomach, in front of the spine, surrounded by the gastrointestinal tract, liver and gallbladder. Together, these organs make up the digestive system.
What Are the Signs of Pancreas Problems?
Too much eating, drinking or smoking can make your pancreas work overtime, which can cause serious health issues. A pancreas that does not function well as it should can lead to many health problems, such as pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis occurs when the digestive enzymes start digesting the pancreas itself, which causes inflammation. It can be acute or chronic, but both are serious and can lead to complications. The most common causes of acute and chronic pancreatitis are gallstones, heavy alcohol use, genetic disorders and some medicines.
Seek medical attention immediately if you have any of the following severe pancreatitis symptoms:
- Severe or worsening abdominal pain or tenderness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fever or chills
- Fast heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes, called jaundice
These pancreatitis symptoms may be a sign of infection, inflammation or blocked pancreas, gallbladder or bile and pancreatic duct—which can be fatal if left untreated. Other conditions that can affect the pancreas include pancreatic cancer and cystic fibrosis.
How to Keep Your Pancreas Healthy
The following healthy lifestyle modifications can prevent pancreatic disorders and other associated conditions as well as improve your overall digestive health:
- Include plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, especially broccoli, cauliflower or cabbage, to keep your diet low in fat.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes daily and maintain a healthy weight to prevent diabetes and gallstones.
- Avoid extreme fad diets that promise quick weight loss. Your liver will thank you for it.
- Drink in moderation. Excessive alcohol use is a known risk factor for pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.
- Do not smoke cigarettes or any other tobacco products. About 20-30% of pancreatic cancer cases are linked to tobacco use.
- Get your pancreas checked regularly. As with any disease, catching pancreatic cancer in its early stages can help prevent cancerous cells from increasing and spreading.
Always remember that how much you eat matters as much as your food choices when it comes to your pancreas. Putting too much stress on your pancreas can cause serious health issues. If you think you have a pancreatic disease, visit a gastroenterologist for a proper diagnosis. Please don't delay care.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
NIH News in Health
The National Pancreas Foundation