An estimated 422 million people worldwide have diabetes, a disease in which there is too much sugar in the bloodstream.
Diabetes occurs when the pancreas, a gland behind the stomach, doesn’t produce enough of the hormone insulin, or when the body can’t use insulin properly. Insulin helps carry sugar from the bloodstream into the cells. Once inside the cells, sugar is then converted into energy for immediate use, or stored for the future – this energy fuels many of our bodily functions.
Here are some key points regarding the pancreas:
- The pancreas maintains the body’s blood sugar (glucose) balance.
- The primary hormones of the pancreas include glucagon and insulin, both of which regulate blood sugar.
- The most common disorder associated with the pancreas is diabetes.
- The pancreas is unique in that it is both an endocrine and exocrine gland – this means that it has a dual function. It can secrete hormones into the blood (endocrine) and secrete enzymes through ducts (exocrine).
The pancreas belongs to the digestive and endocrine systems, with majority of its cells (over 90%) working on the digestive side. However, the pancreas performs the crucial duty of producing hormones – notably insulin – to uphold the balance of blood sugar levels and salt in the body.
Without this balance, your body is vulnerable to serious complications, including diabetes.
Anatomy of the Pancreas
The pancreas is a tapered, elongated organ located across the back of the belly, behind the stomach. The right side of the organ – known as the ‘head’ – is the widest part of the organ and lies in the curve of the duodenum, the first division of the small intestine. The tapered left side extends slightly upward – known as the body of the pancreas – and ends near the spleen – called the tail.
The pancreas is composed of 2 types of glands:
- Endocrine. The endocrine gland, which is made up of the islets of Langerhans, secretes hormones into the bloodstream.
- Exocrine. The exocrine gland secretes digestive enzymes – these enzymes are secreted into a network of ducts that join the main pancreatic duct. This runs the entire length of the pancreas.
Functions of the Pancreas
The pancreas has a dual function: digestive and hormonal.
- Digestive Function. The enzymes secreted by the exocrine gland in the pancreas help break down fats, acids, proteins, and carbohydrates in the duodenum. These enzymes then travel down the pancreatic duct into the bile duct in an inactive form. When they enter the duodenum, they are then activated. The exocrine tissue also secretes a bicarbonate to neutralize stomach acid found in the duodenum.
- Hormonal Function. The main hormones secreted by the endocrine gland in the pancreas are glucagon and insulin, which regulate the level of glucose in the blood, as well as somatostatin which prevents the release of glucagon and insulin.
Hormones of the Pancreas
The production of pancreatic hormones, including glucagon, insulin, gastrin, and somatostatin plays a crucial role in maintaining the balance of sugar and salt in our bodies.
The primary hormones secreted by the pancreas include:
- Glucagon. Glucagon helps insulin maintain normal blood sugar levels by working in the opposite way of insulin. It stimulates your cells to release glucose, and this raises your blood sugar levels.
- Insulin. Insulin helps regulate blood sugar levels by allowing many of your body’s cells to absorb and use glucose. This, in turn, drops blood sugar levels.
- Gastrin. Gastrin aids digestion by stimulating certain cells in the stomach to produce acid.
- Somatostatin. When levels of other pancreatic hormones – such as glucagon or insulin – get too high, somatostatin is secreted to maintain the balance of glucose and/or salt in the blood.
- Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide (VIP). Vasoactive intestinal peptide helps control water absorption and secretion from the intestines by stimulating the intestinal cells to release salts and water into the intestines.
Disorders and Diseases of the Pancreas
Problems in the regulation or production of pancreatic hormones can cause complications related to blood sugar imbalance.
Of all the disorders and diseases of the pancreas, the most well-known is diabetes.
- Type 1 Diabetes. If you have Type 1 Diabetes, your body doesn’t produce enough insulin to handle the glucose in your body. Insulin deficiency causes a range of complications, such as nerve damage and kidney damage, so people with type 1 diabetes must take insulin to help their body use glucose appropriately.
- Type 2 Diabetes. Type 2 Diabetes is much more predominant than type 1. People with Type 2 Diabetes may be able to produce insulin, but their bodies don’t use it correctly. They might also be unable to produce enough insulin to handle the glucose levels in their body. Lifestyle choices, such as exercise and diet, play a crucial role in preventing and managing type 2 diabetes.
Other common disorders and diseases associated with the pancreas are:
- Hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia occurs when someone with diabetes doesn’t have enough glucose (sugar) in their blood. Glucose is the primary source of fuel for the brain and body, so you can’t function well if you don’t have enough of it. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is defined as a blood sugar level below 700mg/dL.
- Hyperglycemia. Conversely, hyperglycemia occurs when there is too much glucose (sugar) in the blood. This happens when your body has too little insulin or if your body can’t use insulin properly. Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) is defined as a blood sugar level greater than 125 mg/dL while fasting.
The Bottom Line
So, to answer the question, “If a person’s blood sugar level becomes unstable, what glands might be involved in the problem?” one only has to look at the functions of the pancreas. By regulating your blood sugar levels, the pancreatic hormones are directly related to some of the most common disorders and diseases of today, including diabetes.