Tour of the Organ Body, Part 3: Pancreas
By Ann Constantino,
Posted in the Humboldt Independent on October 26, 2021
When famous ancient Greek physician Galen of Pergamon declared the pancreas nothing more than spongy protective padding separating the stomach from some large blood vessels, no one challenged the idea for nearly a thousand years.
As anatomists continued to improve dissection techniques and microscopes became more sophisticated, the pancreas’ true function and vital importance began to be realized in the late middle ages.
The pancreas actually has taste buds, not unlike those found on your tongue but connected to the brain.
Now known to be a gland-like organ multi-tasking as both a regulator of blood sugar and a maker of up to 8 cups of digestive fluids per day, the pancreas is a 6-inch long, tapered structure with 4 parts: the head, neck, body, and tail. The head is the widest part and is connected to the duodenum or entrance to the small intestine. The pancreas is situated behind the stomach with the wider head on your right and the tail tapering to the left.
About 95% of the pancreas’ tissue is devoted to the exocrine function of producing the digestive juices specific to breaking down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. On their way into the small intestine, the pancreatic juices are joined by bile produced by the liver, creating a cocktail of transformation into nutrients to be absorbed into the bloodstream via specialized cells in the small intestine.
The remaining 5% of the pancreas’ duties include the endocrine function of the production and release directly into the bloodstream of insulin, which lowers blood sugar, and glucagon, which raises it. Proper blood sugar levels are necessary for smooth functioning of the brain, liver, and kidneys. In order to carry out this regulation, the pancreas actually has taste buds, not unlike those found on your tongue but connected to the brain. These tastebuds are sensitive to sugar and tell the pancreas which hormone to secrete.
About 70% of chronic pancreatitis cases are caused by long-term alcohol abuse.
The pancreas can negatively affect your health when it overproduces digestive enzymes and essentially begins to digest itself. This causes a painful condition known as pancreatitis, which comes in chronic or acute forms. About 70% of chronic pancreatitis cases are caused by long-term alcohol abuse. Other causes are gallstones blocking the pancreatic duct, autoimmune diseases, some medications, or high triglyceride levels. Sometimes the cause is not detectable. A damaged pancreas cannot be repaired, but the disease can be managed.
Treatment for chronic pancreatitis consists of quitting alcohol first and foremost, and then managing pain, using medication to restore digestive function, and occasionally surgery to remove sections of the pancreas when more conservative measures fail.
Acute pancreatitis can also be triggered by heavy alcohol consumption, but also by infection, trauma, lipid issues, some medications, and even the venom of a Brazilian scorpion. Symptoms tend to be more sudden and severe than in chronic cases and include upper abdominal pain radiating into the back of the body, jaundice, fever, nausea, vomiting, and elevated pulse.
About 85% of acute pancreatitis patients will make a full recovery. Intravenous fluids are given initially during a hospital stay to stabilize the severity of the issue and new data indicate that food should begin to be consumed as soon as it is tolerated rather than giving the pancreas up to a 48 hour rest period. Meanwhile, underlying causes are identified and addressed whether blockages or other issues.
Both chronic and acute pancreatitis have an association with oxidative stress and anti-oxidant therapies are showing promise as complementary treatments, although more research is needed to determine optimal dosages of which agents and for how long. Vitamin C, Selenium, Vitamin E, and the amino acid methionine have been studied so far with hopeful results.
Diabetes and Pancreatitis Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to treat because there are seldom symptoms before it is too late.
Chronic pancreatitis is considered to raise the likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer two- or threefold over its normal rate of occurrence in the general population where it accounts for about 3% of all cancers.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to treat because there are seldom symptoms before it is too late for effective treatment. Only about 8 percent of pancreatic cancer patients survive five years. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the disease’s most famous survivor. The genetic component of pancreatic cancer explains why Jimmy Carter lost so many family members to the illness.
Type 1 diabetes is caused when the body’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Scientists believe this immune system dysfunction may have genetic, viral, or environmental factors.
Because the symptoms of issues with the pancreas span such a wide variety of complaints, it is wise to check in with your provider about any changes in digestion, weight, back pain, blood sugar levels, etc. Tests may be run to rule out severe disease and treatment may be simple lifestyle modifications such as improved diet, and quitting smoking and drinking. If a more severe disease is identified, earlier treatment can lead to improved quality of a longer life.
Much more than a mere bumper between the stomach and surrounding structures, the pancreas is a vital chemistry lab that deserves attention and care to maintain essential systems of a healthy body.
Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.