You might be wondering about your pancreas’ anatomy and function if you are experiencing health issues relating to your pancreas.
For example, if your medical practitioner has diagnosed you with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) or a more serious illness like pancreatic cancer, you may want to learn more.
Your pancreas is an integral part of your digestive system. It performs numerous endocrine functions and exocrine functions that our body needs to process carbohydrates, fats, and sugars.
The pancreas is behind the stomach in the upper left abdomen. It’s about six to nine inches long, weighs about 90 grams, is spongy and bumpy on the surface, and is shaped like a long, sideways eggplant.
If your pancreas is not functioning properly, it can affect your body’s ability to digest food and use nutrients, your reproductive system, your sexual function, your body’s natural secretions, and more.
Prepare yourself for a quick anatomy lesson: To truly explain pancreas anatomy, we need to review these technical terms.
The pancreas helps with both endocrine functions and exocrine functions.
As part of the endocrine system, your pancreas releases hormones that help regulate blood sugar and your appetite, among other things. These hormones are sometimes referred to as chemical “messengers.” They move through your blood, triggering various bodily functions such as metabolism and breathing, sensory perception, sexual development, reproduction, and human growth.
As part of the exocrine system, the pancreas secretes enzymes that break down food so that it can nourish your body.
After the stomach empties partially digested food into the intestine, the pancreas releases these digestive enzymes and hormones to help process it. These enzymes include:
The pancreas makes hormones that control blood glucose levels, but that’s not all. It produces hormones that help with a number of important body functions, from growth hormones to reproduction and even breathing.
Each of these contains four types of cells:
The pancreas plays a key role in digestion. Part of that is due to pancreatic juice, which includes these two things:
Pancreatic exocrine cells exist in grape-like clusters called acini. The exocrine cells themselves are packed with granules that contain digestive enzymes.
From there, these secretions flow into increasingly larger excretory ducts, which eventually merge into the main pancreatic duct. This goes directly into the duodenum.
If you have a pancreatic disease, your overall health can be adversely affected. For example, if it doesn’t produce enough digestive enzymes, your body won’t adequately break down or absorb your food. This can lead to low absorption of nutrients, weight loss, and a shortage of vitamins.
As previously mentioned, the pancreas helps regulate glucose, which produces insulin. If you don’t have enough insulin, your risk of developing diabetes increases.
Many diseases and conditions can affect your pancreas. Let’s take a look at the more common pancreatic illnesses.
Pancreatitis is when your pancreas is inflamed. There are three main types of inflammatory pancreatic disease: acute, chronic, and hereditary.
Pancreatitis can damage your pancreas if it becomes chronic. Treatments can range from no longer drinking alcohol or smoking to using pancreatic enzymes and even getting surgery. If you think you have pancreatitis, consult with a medical professional right away.
Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly and causes severe stomach pain. Other symptoms include diarrhea, bloating, nausea, vomiting, and fever.
This inflammatory disease can be caused by numerous conditions such as:
Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis may include severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. As the disease progresses, it damages the pancreas irreversibly.
Among other things, causes of chronic pancreatitis include:
Chronic pancreatitis is progressive, and about 20% of cases can lead to exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI).
Hereditary pancreatitis is a genetic condition that includes recurrent episodes of pancreatic inflammation. Sometimes this is because of genetic mutations, including mutations of PRSS1, SPINK1, and CFTR genes.
Hereditary pancreatitis is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time.
There are a few early signs of pancreatic cancer, including abdominal or back pain, weight loss, jaundice, changes in stools, and pancreatitis.
However, this type of cancer often doesn’t show symptoms until the disease has already progressed significantly, often to stage 4. Because of this, pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal kinds of cancer.
The risk for pancreatic cancer is higher for people whose immediate family members have had the disease and those who have any genetic mutations, including a mutation in the BRCA2 gene, more commonly associated with breast cancer.
At ezra, we know that early detection is the best defense against cancer, which is why we encourage annual full-body MRI scans.
EPI means you’re deficient in pancreatic enzymes to the point where you’re malnourished.
With EPI, your body doesn’t have enough of the pancreatic enzymes needed to break down the food you eat. As a result, EPI affects how your body digests food, causes extreme gastrointestinal symptoms and could stop you from getting enough nutrition from the foods you eat.
Issues that can cause EPI include:
Treatments range from adjusting your diet, pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), and pain management. If you have EPI, talk with a medical professional about the best course of action for you.
If your pancreas isn’t working for you as it should, you’ll probably have at least some of the following signs and symptoms:
Excessive alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking can put your pancreas at risk. To keep your pancreas healthy, consume foods rich in protein, low in animal fats, and contain antioxidants.
Healthy habits go a very long way toward keeping your pancreas and other organs healthy. Still, you can also improve your physical well-being by scheduling an annual screening.
If you think you might be at risk for pancreatic cancer or other pancreatic diseases, take ezra’s five-minute quiz and get your risk score today.