The Function of the Pancreas in Humans
The pancreas is one of the most important organs in the human body and has a wide variety of functions. In this quick guide to the Pancreas, you are going to discover a quick overview of what the pancreas does based on body system.
Since the pancreas is such a vital organ for the body, we have broken down our guide on its function into multiple parts. For example, in the section below on digestion, you will get a quick overview on how the pancreas helps digest food.
If you then click on the article on the pancreas and digestion, you will get a guide detailing the specific enzymes the pancreas releases and how these enzymes help digest food.
This allows us to give a person looking for quick overview of the role of the pancreas a brief synopsis while giving more detail on a specific functions to those that want it.
Endocrine vs Exocrine – Two Parts to the Pancreas
The pancreas is actually two organs in one. Most people know the pancreas for its endocrine functions, which refers to the ability of the pancreas to produce hormones like insulin. However, the pancreas is equally important for its ability to produce digestive enzymes, which is considered an exocrine function.
Endocrine Function of the Pancreas – Co-Regulator of Blood Sugar
The pancreas is the only organ in the body which produces insulin. Insulin is a hormone which transports glucose to cells that need it. Insulin will bind to receptors on the surface of the cell, which stimulates microscopic channels to rise to the cell’s surface. These channels then allow glucose to enter the cell.
When most people think of the pancreas, they think of diabetes. After all, Type-1 Diabetes occurs when the body’s immune cells mistakenly attack and destroy the beta cells of the pancreas (which produce insulin). Without insulin, blood glucose (sugar) is not able to enter cells fast enough, leading to high blood sugar and improperly functioning cells. Insulin needs to be replaced in those with complete beta cell destruction to manage blood sugar. A healthy pancreas produces enough insulin to handle the body’s glucose intake.
Most people think that insulin is the only concern of the pancreas. However, this is only half the picture. The pancreas also works with the liver (the other regulator of blood sugar) to help prevent blood sugar from getting too low. Low-blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, is much rarer than high blood sugar but also much more deadly. While many people go undiagnosed for years with Type-2 diabetes, if your blood sugar drops too low, you can die!
The pancreas produces another hormone called glucagon, which has the opposite function of insulin. While insulin stimulates the body to store glucose, glucagon causes the liver to break glycogen (stored glucose) down into glucose and release it into the blood stream. The liver is a giant storage tank for glycogen and is able to release small amounts of glucose over time to maintain blood sugar levels. This homeostatic process allows us to go days without food without our blood sugar dropping to deadly levels.
The pancreas also produces a few other proteins and hormones that have some self-regulating effects. You can learn more about those particular functions in our article: “Hormones Produced by the Pancreas“.
Exocrine Functions of the Pancreas
In addition to the creation of hormones, the pancreas plays a vital role in digestion. In fact, upon learning about the digestive system for the first time, many students are surprised to discover that it is the enzymes produced by the pancreas are responsible for a large part of human digestion.
The pancreas produces a variety of enzymes, the most important being trypsin, chymotrypsin, pancreatic amylase, and pancreatic lipase. Trypsin and chymotrypsin break down proteins (pre-digested by pepsin in the stomach) into amino acids or chains of 1-3 amino acids while pancreatic amylase helps to break down carbohydrate into 2-3 sugar chains (di- and tri-saccharides). Any amino acids and sugars still bound in a chain are broken down into individual amino acids by the brush-border enzymes in the microvilli of the small intestines and then absorbed.
Pancreatic lipase on the other hand breaks down triglycerides into free-fatty acids and glycerol before absorption into the body. Pancreatic lipase requires bile from the liver to be effective; fat tends to form into spheres in water (think of oil in salad dressing), which does not provide much surface area for lipase to work on. Bile prevents this from happening (a process called emulsification) which allows pancreatic amylase to do its job.
If you want more specific information on how the pancreas works to digest food, check out these two articles:
The Powerful Pancreas
As you now know, the pancreas is one of our most important organs and is necessary to not only regulate blood sugar but also to digest food. It is directly involved in reducing high blood sugar, raising low blood sugar, and in the digestion of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.