The pancreas is an essential organ in our body and part of our digestive system.
We don’t hear much about it when it is doing its job and functioning properly, but sometimes it can create serious and life threatening issues. Here are just 3 common conditions of the pancreas that you should know about.
The Purpose of the Pancreas
The pancreas has multiple functions, all of which are vital to our health and well being.
- Creates insulin and secretes it into the bloodstream to regulate glucose levels.
- Secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine to break down food for fuel.
A healthy pancreas will produce the chemicals to help us digest the food we eat. These enzymes work to break down carbohydrates, break down fats into fatty acids and cholesterol, and help us digest proteins.
If the pancreas does not make enough digestive enzymes, food cannot be digested and this leads to diarrhea and weight loss. If too little insulin is produced, it can increase blood glucose levels, which also increases the individual’s risk for developing diabetes as well.
Pancreatitis is a serious condition and should be treated immediately if symptoms appear. The first type is acute pancreatitis and it usually strikes suddenly with severe stomach pain accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
Pancreatitis occurs when the digestive enzymes become activated too soon in the pancreas, which in turn destroys the tissues of the pancreas. It effectively means the pancreas is digesting itself. In most cases, acute pancreatitis is caused by a blockage in the ducts. This can be from gallstones or tiny gallstones in the bile known as sludge.
Other causes can be excessive alcohol consumption, extremely high triglycerides, high blood calcium, smoking, or trauma to the abdomen. In addition, drugs, steroids, or mumps can precede acute pancreatitis.
The second type is chronic pancreatitis. In this case the condition develops gradually, which leads to the slow destruction of the pancreas. Chronic abdominal pain persists with this condition, and it can lead to other problems like bacterial infections, pancreatic insufficiency, or type 2 diabetes. The majority of chronic pancreatitis cases are from alcohol abuse, but others can be a result of heredity or cystic fibrosis.
This is probably the most common reason we hear about the pancreas. It is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in men, and the fifth in women. The causes of pancreatic cancer are still unknown, but it seems to be linked to smoking and heavy drinking. It can be associated with liver problems, diabetes, stomach infections, exposure to some industrial chemicals, and chronic pancreatitis.
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may not appear until the disease is at an advanced stage, and prognosis is usually poor. Only about 10% of these cancer cases are still contained solely within the pancreas by the time it is diagnosed, making treatment quite difficult.
This relates to the inability of the pancreas to produce and/or transfer sufficient amounts of digestive enzymes to break down food in the intestines. This includes fats, protein, and carbohydrates. Pancreatic insufficiency can be caused by progressing damage as a result of chronic pancreatitis in adults, or from cystic fibrosis, especially in children.
Don’t wait to seek the care of a physician if you have unusual gastrointestinal symptoms. See Agave Surgical Specialists if your normal digestive system seems off, or if you are experiencing abdominal pain, weight loss, or loss of appetite.