The pancreas does two main things. It makes fluids that contain enzymes, which break down the nutrients in food -- like fats and proteins -- so your body can use them. And it makes hormones like insulin to balance your blood sugar levels.
The pancreas is about 6 inches long and looks a bit like a tadpole, with a head, body, and tail. It sits in the abdomen, behind the stomach and in front of the spine.
Enzymes are proteins that boost the rate of chemical reactions in your body. Without them, processes that can take seconds or minutes would take years. Enzymes in the pancreas combine with bile, a liquid made by the liver, to break down food.
Because the pancreas makes insulin, you'll develop diabetes if you need to have yours removed. That means you will be dependent on insulin shots (or a pump). It's also hard to manage because the pancreas makes other hormones that control blood sugar.
When ducts, or tubes, in the pancreas are blocked, enzymes build up. That causes the pancreas to begin to self-destruct. When this happens, it’s called acute pancreatitis. Symptoms include gradual or sudden pain in the abdomen, which can be mild at first but usually becomes severe. Treatment often involves time in the hospital on IV fluids, without eating or drinking, so the pancreas can rest.
Inherited factors, cystic fibrosis, and some medications can cause chronic pancreatitis, but it is most often brought on by years of drinking too much alcohol. People with this ailment should stop drinking, no matter what caused their condition.
People with certain conditions -- like pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, and those who’ve had certain kinds of surgeries -- may not make enough pancreatic enzymes. Because these people can't absorb nutrients properly, they need a treatment called pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy.
Islets (pronounced EYE-lets) are tiny clusters of several different cells in the pancreas. These cells make insulin, which controls your blood sugar levels. They are also called the islets of Langerhans, for German pathologist Paul Langerhans, who first described them in the 1860s.
When you have type 1 diabetes, certain types of islet cells no longer make enough insulin, because they've been attacked by the body’s immune system. All people with type 1 diabetes must take insulin. Type 2 diabetes happens when the body becomes resistant to insulin. This is usually caused by a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors, including obesity and lack of physical activity.
Pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, making up only about 2.8% of new cancer diagnoses. The risk of developing it increases with age, and it is most commonly diagnosed in people ages 75-84. It's hard to detect and is the fourth-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.
Pancreas transplants are mainly done when someone has type 1 diabetes that is extremely hard to control. It is often done at the same time as a kidney transplant. The old pancreas is usually left in place to continue to make enzymes. Because your immune system will naturally reject the new organ, you'll have to take drugs to prevent that for the rest of your life. Pancreas transplants are not possible in people with pancreatic cancer: The drugs that prevent rejection would also keep your immune system from fighting the cancer.
Research shows that the pancreas can detect fructose, a type of sugar that's found naturally in fruits and honey, but is also added to processed foods, like cereals and soda, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. The receptors that allow the pancreas to perceive sweetness may play a role in diseases like type 2 diabetes.