What Does the Pancreas Do?

You’ve just eaten several hamburgers with the largest coke bottle you could find… and topped it off with a double helping of ice cream.

Then, why are you feeling so lethargic?

One word: pancreas.

Why you lack energy

Feeling thirsty, dizzy and nauseated all the time means the organ in charge of breaking down food might be on a vacation or not functioning at all (this may be due to pancreatitis, the seventh most common digestive disease diagnosed on hospitalization).

The organ, your pancreas, is 6 to 8 inches long. Located in the abdomen, it helps digest food, and produce hormones, insulin and other enzymes.

The pancreas has to produce sufficient digestive enzymes to enhance proper food absorption.

Functions of the pancreas

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To answer the question, “What does the pancreas do?” you first have to examine its structure.

95% of the pancreas is made up of exocrine tissue (tissue that forms exocrine glands, which have ducts to release secretions). The exocrine glands produce enzymes essential for digestion: breaking down carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Also, acid in the duodenum is neutralized by bicarbonate secreted by the exocrine tissue.

Interesting fact: A normal pancreas secretes 1.5 – 2 liters of juice daily.

The remaining 5% of the pancreas plays an equally important role.

The remaining 5% is made up of Islets of Langerhans (endocrine glands, which don’t have ducts so release secretions into your blood stream). These glands secrete:

  • Glucagon – a hormone secreted by pancreatic alpha cells to counteract hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar levels), thus opposing insulin action by increasing blood glucose concentrations.
  • Insulin – a well-known hormone secreted by pancreatic beta cells, at the slightest rise of blood sugar levels. It effectively reduces glucose levels in your blood.

Let’s take a better look at the multifunctional insulin…

Through the action of insulin, glucose moves from your blood and into your muscles to be used as energy. Insulin also assists your liver to absorb glucose and store it as glycogen.

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Now that we’ve answered the question, “What does the pancreas do?” it’s only logical that we ask, “What happens if the pancreas doesn’t do what it should do?”

When the pancreas doesn’t work

If enzymes secreted by the pancreas build up, they end up digesting the organ. This can be caused by blockage of the main duct by a gallstone, trauma, or use of alcohol and drugs. It may result in inflammation of the pancreas: pancreatitis.

Symptoms include:

  • abdominal pain and swelling
  • vomiting
  • pancreatic cancer

If pancreatitis happens often, you can develop chronic pancreatitis, exhibiting the following symptoms:

  • weight loss
  • diabetes
  • mild jaundice

Note that pancreatitis can also be inherited.

Another issue that can affect the function of this valuable organ is pancreatic cancer.

In the US, pancreatic cancer is the fourth common cause of cancer deaths. In fact, research by the America Cancer Society shows that about 43,090 people will die from pancreatic cancer in 2017.

Although the exact cause is yet to be identified, smoking and drinking are known factors that increase your chances of developing the disease.

Fortunately, you can keep your pancreas healthy by:

  • taking 20 grams or less of fat a day
  • abstaining from alcohol
  • drinking lots of water


We diligently guard our phones, homes and other valuables, even to the extent of changing our habits just to safeguard our property; therefore, it shouldn’t be too much trouble avoiding those few beers and cigarettes to protect your priceless pancreas.

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