What does the pancreas do?
Sitting behind the stomach, this 6-10 inch (18-25 centimeter) organ aids in digestion and is crucial in blood sugar regulation. The pancreas produces enzymes that help break down food in the small intestine after passing through the stomach. Its enzymes break down carbohydrates, digest proteins, and break down fats into fatty acids and cholesterol.
It is most known for its role in blood sugar regulation. Upon consuming carbohydrates or sugar (carbohydrates are a type of sugar), the body experiences a spike in the blood’s glucose concentration. The pancreas produces insulin that is broken down and used to lower one’s blood sugar level. Insulin also moves glucose from the blood into tissues and muscles to be stored as glycogen. This glycogen will later be converted into glucose for the body to use for energy.
When one’s blood sugar gets too low, the pancreas releases a different hormone: glucagon. Glucagon signals the liver, or muscle or fat cells to release their stored sugars. It allows those stored sugars to break down into glucose, with the resulting sugar entering the bloodstream.
Diabetes and the pancreas
Diabetes is a disease affecting the body’s ability to regulate its blood sugar level. This post will not go in-depth into diabetes, but here are some causes for type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes:
Type 1: The immune system destroys the insulin producing cells in the pancreas. Genetics and environmental factors also play a role.
Type 2: This is the most common type. It is often due to insulin resistance. This is when muscle, fat, and liver cells use insulin inefficiently. So, the body needs more insulin to produce the same results as in a non-diabetic person and eventually, the pancreas cannot make enough insulin. Genetics, obesity, and physical inactivity contribute to type 2 diabetes.
Gestational: During pregnancy, it is possible for the mother to develop gestational diabetes. Hormonal changes, genetics, diet, and inactivity play a role. Insulin resistance is partly due to hormones produced by the placenta.
For more on diabetes, read this article by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).