The pancreas is one of the lesser-understood organs, not as immediately iconic as the heart, the brain or even the stomach. In fact, most people would probably have a hard time describing too much about this unique part of the body, or even where exactly it is. That’s perhaps because of its tucked-away location deep in the guts, hidden from probing or even recognition coming from non-physicians on the outside. But the pancreas is an extremely important, not to mention fascinating organ, and one that people don’t always appreciate until something goes awry (knock on wood).
This will serve as a little guide for non-physicians, and non-diagnosis purposes. Call it Pancreas 101.
The pancreas is located in the abdomen, toward the back of the body, behind the stomach and the small intestine. It begins right in the center of your belly, between the lower part of the center of your rib cage, and the navel. That’s about where the largest part, the head, is located. The rest of the pancreas extends out and tapers, a bit like a tongue, up and to the left of the abdomen about six or seven inches.
The pancreas is nestled snugly behind the stomach, with the rounded head (I know it’s a little creepy to describe an organ with a head and tail like it’s an animal, but these are the actual medical terms) pressed into the curve of the duodenum. The duodenum is the beginning of the small intestine, a curved tube that extends from the base of the stomach. The head of the pancreas fits right into the contour of that tube.
The tail extends to the upper left (your left) part of the abdomen, more or less tracking the outline of the stomach, and below the liver. The tip of the tail ends at the spleen. The pancreas is connected to the intestine, the gall bladder and the liver by a series of ducts, of which the pancreatic duct extends down the length of the pancreas.
Function of the pancreasWhat could such a curious little slab of tissue do for you? Well, quite a lot, actually, and its function is as unique as its shape and location. The pancreas actually has two functions, one digestive and another hormonal, and both involve glandular secretions. More specifically, one function of the pancreas is to secrete enzymes that help break down food in the duodenum, while the other is to secrete hormones insulin, glucagon and somatostatin, which regulate the blood sugar.
Both functions are crucial, but about 90% of the tissue in the pancreas is devoted to producing digestive enzymes. In this role, think of the pancreas almost like a salivary gland, but further down the digestive tract. When food leaves the stomach, it enters the duodenum, and at this stage of digestion, bile from the gall bladder and pancreatic fluid from the pancreas are squirted into the mix to help break down food. These pancreatic enzymes travel from a system of ducts that run throughout the organ into one main pancreatic duct, which empties into the duodenum.
The second function takes place in only 5% of the tissue of the pancreas, but is critical for the cells of the body to function properly and sustain life. The body’s cells require energy, readily available in the form of glucose, a type of sugar that is delivered to them. When we eat, the level of blood sugar rises, and when we are not eating, the level falls. The pancreas uses three hormones to regulate the level of blood sugar. Without this steady balance, our cells would not function properly (as in the case of diabetics).
Anatomy of the pancreasThe pancreas has five main sections—the head, the neck, the body, the tail, and the uncinate. As mentioned above, the head is snug against the duodenum, the neck connects the head to the body, which is the tapering midsection that ends in the tail. The uncinate is a small part of the organ that curves backward underneath the head.
The pancreas has two key types of cell—the pancreatic acini and the Islets of Langerhans. The acini are little berry-like clusters that produce the digestive enzymes. Through the body of the pancreas, the main duct splits into small forks, much like the body’s veins and arteries. At the end of these forks live the little clumps of pancreatic acini. When the duodenum has food in it, the cells secrete the enzymes that travel through the ducts to the digestive system.
The Islets of Langerhans, as their far more interesting name might suggest, are quite unique little structures. They take up much less room, just 5% of the overall organ, and are isolated in pockets within the pancreas, just floating amid the rest of the pancreatic tissue. In fact, they seem to have little awareness of or interaction with the pancreatic cells that surround them. Biologists have noted that the Islet cells form almost an entirely separate organ from the rest of the pancreas; they just happen to live there.
They play that critical role of regulating the blood sugar, by secreting three hormones—insulin, glucagon and somatostatin. All of these hormones help turn up or turn down the level of sugar in the blood, regulating how much fuel goes to all of the body’s cells at a steady, manageable level. Rather than relying on the duct system, the Islets release these hormones directly into the bloodstream through tiny capillaries.
One final fun fact about the pancreas, not only does it share a shape with a tongue (although some say a carrot), it even has taste receptors. Similar to the mouth, the pancreas can detect sweetness, which actually plays a part in both the digestive and the blood sugar aspects. Recent research found that it can actually “taste” levels of glucose and fructose in a human’s diet, and amp up the insulin to turn rising blood sugar into fuel.