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The Pancreas

The pancreas is a small, spongy organ of about six inches long which lies just under the curvature of the stomach on the left side and deep within the abdomen. The function of the pancreas is a complicated, but one could say that it primarily does two things. It produces enzymes which are useful for the digestion of food AND it secretes hormones which, among other things, help maintain and regulate body sugar levels.

The pancreatic enzymes are produced in cells which are called acinar cells; this part of the pancreas is called the EXOCRINE part of the pancreas. The clumps of acinar cells are found gathered throughout the pancreas; these cells release salts and enzymes into small tributaries which collect and transport this pancreatic fluid (called “pancreatic juice”). These small creeks eventually gather and coalesce into the river known as the pancreatic duct. This sixteenth-of-an inch-wide duct runs from left-to-right along the length of the pancreas, eventually (usually) joining up with the bile duct and emptying its combined digestive contents into the first part of the small bowel (called the duodenum). These enzyme-carrying fluids from the bile and pancreatic ducts are necessary for efficient digestion.

Additionally, the pancreas has an ENDOCRINE or hormonal function. For example, inside of specialized groupings of cells called the Islets of Langerhans, the pancreas produces hormones which are secreted directly into the blood stream. These hormones have numerous effects, and will be addressed in a simplistic fashion here. Insulin (produced by so-called beta cells) has effects, among which it lowers the level of glucose in the blood. Glucagon (produced by alpha cells) tends to increase the level of blood sugar. Other hormones, as well as various peptides, are produced by the endocrine pancreas–including also somatostatin, a hormone which inhibits the secretion of insulin. The hormones produced by the pancreas are necessary for the healthy regulation of human physiology.

Thus, the pancreas is a small but critical organ for an individual’s well-being.