What is the Pancreas
The pancreas is a pear shaped organ that is found deep in the abdomen over the spine. A number of other organs cover the pancreas including the stomach, colon and the spleen. Because of the deep location of the pancreas, diseases that affect the pancreas are often diagnosed at a late stage since symptoms from pancreatic diseases are not very prominent during the early stage of the disease. The pancreas is really two organs in one, since it has two main functions.
The pancreas secretes the hormone insulin that is responsible for regulating the sugar level in the blood. The cells that produce insulin in the pancreas are called islet cells. The loss of islet cells leads to the development of diabetes mellitus; a condition where there is excessive sugar in the blood of the patient that can give rise to many medical problems.
There are many causes for diabetes. In patients who have chronic inflammation of the pancreas, a condition called chronic pancreatitis, the inflammation destroy the islet cells and lead to the development of diabetes. Patients who undergo pancreatic surgery where part of the pancreas is removed are also at risk for developing diabetes. It is estimated that approximately 75% of the normal pancreas may be safely removed without the development of diabetes mellitus.
Pancreatic enzyme production
The pancreas also manufactures enzymes that play an important role in the digestion of food in the gastrointestinal tract. Some of the enzymes made by the pancreas include an enzyme called lipase that is responsible for breakdown of fats, amylase that is responsible for the breakdown of carbohydrates and trypsin which is responsible the for breakdown of proteins in the gastrointestinal tract.
The body cannot absorb whole protein, fat or carbohydrates that are found in the food and require that these nutrients are broken down into smaller units by the enzymes from the pancreas before they can be absorbed into the blood from the gastrointestinal tract. In patients who have lost function of their pancreas after surgery or from chronic pancreatitis there is a marked reduction of secretion of pancreatic enzymes. This often result in poor digestion of fats and occasionally of carbohydrates and proteins. A common symptom of poor digestion of fat is fatty diarrhea in which the patient has very bulky and oily stools and that are difficult to flush down the toilet.
The treatment for pancreatic enzyme deficiency is enzyme supplements that are available in a pill form. These enzyme supplements are often required in patients who have undergone pancreatic surgery or who have chronic pancreatitis.