The pancreas does two important things:
1) It makes enzymes, which are necessary to digest food in the intestines.
Food consists of carbohydrates (e.g. glucose), proteins (e.g. meat) and fat (e.g. butter). Pancreas secretes different enzymes, which are responsible for breaking down clumps of different types of food into small particles for absorption. (process of digestion) The main enzymes include amylase for digesting carbohydrates, trypsin for digesting proteins and lipase for digesting fats.
These enzymes are collected from the small glands in the pancreas into small ducts and finally into the main pancreatic duct to be released into the duodenum. The enzymes when they are first made in the acini are not active (otherwise they would digest the pancreas as well!). When they pass into the duodenum however, they are made active by the juice of the duodenum.
If there are not enough pancreatic enzymes, fat is not digested and the stools (bowel motions) become pale and greasy. These greasy stools may become difficult to flush away from the toilet and may give off a strong offensive smell. Doctors call this steatorrhoea (fatty stool.)
The digestion of fat is very special. Fat needs to be dispersed before the pancreatic enzymes can properly break it down. This dispersion of fats is made by bile acids, which are present in bile produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder. Bile acids act in exactly the same way as detergents, which are used to wash up greasy dishes.
Therefore, both bile acids and pancreatic enzymes are needed for fat digestion. If the main bile duct becomes blocked, then the bile cannot get into the duodenum & fat cannot be properly digested.
When the common opening is blocked, the bile made by the liver cannot go into the bowel it goes into the blood and out through the kidneys into the urine. This results in the eyes and skin becoming yellow and is known as jaundice. As the bile is in the urine this now becomes dark in color. Because the flow of bile is blocked (or obstructed), doctors call this condition obstructive jaundice. As the bile duct goes through the head of the pancreas, jaundice can be caused by disease of the pancreas (such as pancreatitis or cancer).
2) Pancreas produces insulin to enable every part of the body to use glucose (sugar).
Insulin is a hormone made in special groups of cells called islets of Langerhans, whichare dispersed throughout the pancreatic gland. It helps the cells of the body to use glucose as a source of energy in order to maintain their different functions. In absence of insulin, sugar instead of entering the cells of the body, stays in the blood leading to harmfully high concentrations. (Diabetes mellitus)
A large proportion of the islets (pronounced ‘eye- lets’) are in the tail of the gland. Most of the pancreas can be removed but there are usually enough islets remaining to make insulin sufficient to prevent sugar diabetes from occurring.
As you are probably aware, diabetes can be treated by taking regular injections of insulin, which can be taken from the pancreas of animals (e.g. pork insulin) or made by genetic engineering (so called ‘human’ insulin).
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