What is the Pancreas?

The normal function of the pancreas is discussed here for non-doctors.

The pancreas is a digestive gland, similar to the salivary gland in the mouth.  If you were to take a bite of a sour lemon, the salivary gland would squirt juice into the mouth to balance the acid in lemon juice.  In a similar way, when gastric acid squirts into the first part of the small intestine (called the duodenum) the pancreas quickly squirts pancreatic juice into the intestine to balance the acid in the gastric juice.

The pancreas is also like the salivary gland because it adds digestive enzymes to the juice. Digestive enzymes are molecular scissors that can cut complex molecules (like chunks of meat) into small pieces that can be taken into the body for nutrition (meat is digested to protein, protein is digested to amino acids).  The salivary gland makes enzymes that digest starches (like potato or rice into simple sugars, including glucose) but it does not make enzymes to digest protein.  The pancreas makes dozens of different types of enzymes that digest proteins in multiple places (from the sides or in the middle), others that digest starch and carbohydrates, others that digest fats, and still others that digest other nutrients.

Test Image

Test Image

The pancreas has another major function that is not shared by the salivary gland, which is making insulin.  Insulin is a signal (called a hormone) that is released into the blood stream and goes to cells of the body to tell them that nutrients are on the way.  The pancreas makes three other hormones that have minor roles.

The figure shows the location of the pancreas in the abdomen.  The pancreas is about the size of the index and middle finger together of the persons hand (although longer).  The pancreatic duct (dark green) is the passage way to move juice and digestive enzymes from the cells in the pancreas where they originate to the duodenum.  Note that the pancreatic duct joins the common bile duct at the duodenum.  The common bile duct brings bile from the gallbladder and liver to the intestine.  The bile works with the pancreatic juice to digest triglycerides and other fats.

Many people do not know that they have a pancreas.  If it is because it is working normally, then that is not all bad.