The pancreas is an organ essential for survival that holds two major roles: to help us digest food and produce hormones that control the amount of sugar in our blood.
The pancreas is located near the stomach, and when we eat food, the pancreas releases digestive enzymes rich into our bowels to help break the food down. Meanwhile, the pancreas has hormone-producing endocrine cells gathered in clusters called islets of Langerhans that keep an eye on the blood and have the ability to release hormones right into the bloodstream when needed. They keep a particularly close watch on sugar–or glucose–levels in our blood, and produce a hormone called insulin when there’s too much glucose present. This is because insulin has the ability to help us lower blood-sugar levels by storing glucose in our muscles, liver, fat, and other tissues where it can be used up as energy later. And as we eat, the amount of nutrients in our blood concurrently rise, signaling the pancreas to make insulin to store away glucose in the blood. The pancreas doesn’t make insulin between meals, which lets the body slowly release its glucose stores into the bloodstream as necessary.
It’s of the utmost importance for glucose levels to always remain stable in our blood so we have a steady energy supply; we need energy for exercise, metabolism, as well as the parts of our brains that function on glucose.
Things can go awry in the pancreas, and that can sometimes mean that cells stop making insulin altogether or are unable to make enough to cover our body’s needs. When this happens, you develop a condition known as diabetes mellitus, which comes in two forms. Type 1 diabetes is the result of the body self-sabotaging: the immune system attacks its own cells in the islets of Langerhans, making them unable to create insulin. On the other hand, type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder: the body can no longer respond to or make insulin.
If you are diagnosed with diabetes, your treatment plan will depend on which type you have:
- Patients with type 1 diabetes have to keep tabs on their blood-sugar levels, count carbohydrates, and use insulin injections
- Patients with type 2 diabetes generally involves monitoring blood sugar, taking medication and/or insulin, and making lifestyle changes
The good news, however, is that type 2 diabetes is largely preventable. The Harvard School of Public Health says that about 90% of cases of type 2 diabetes and prediabetes could be avoided simply by making lifestyle changes towards healthier routines.