Did you know it was Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month? Check out the Cancer Council website for more details.
Our pancreases are the unsung hero of the vital organs. The brain sparks creativity, the heart holds romance, and the stomach demands so much attention it’s impossible to forget. Humble, quiet, and honestly a little ugly, the pancreas is a hard-working piece of human machinery that we might forget to take care of.
To help keep our pancreas in good health, let’s wrap our heads around what it is and what it does.
What is the pancreas?
It looks like the love-child of a tongue and corn on the cob.
It’s located in the abdomen, behind the stomach.
Its functions are twofold, playing a part in both digestion in the release of enzymes and in the production of hormones.
The pancreas’ role in digestion
When we talk about the role of the pancreas in digestion, we call it the exocrine pancreas.
The exocrine pancreas is there to help the small intestine by further breaking down food and releasing pancreatic juices (yum!) filled with enzymes.
Here’s where it fits in the digestion journey:
Before food has reached the exocrine pancreas, it’s been partially digested by the stomach.
Then the exocrine pancreas produces enzymes that further breaks down carbs (amylase), fats (lipase), and protein (proteases). It also produces sodium bicarbonate to neutralise any remaining stomach acid in the food before…
Passing it on to the small intestine.
The pancreas’ role in hormone production
When we talk about the role of the pancreas in hormone production, we call it the endocrine pancreas.
The endocrine pancreas produces hormones that help regulate blood sugar levels – insulin and glucagon.
Insulin is released when blood sugar levels are high, helping the body absorb the sugar to get energy from it.
Glucagon is released when blood sugar levels are low, it calls on the liver to release stored sugar and turn proteins into sugar for energy.
Insulin and glucagon are your sugar-systems ying and yang, helping maintain your body’s blood sugar levels and making sure you’ve got all the energy you need to get through the day.
Pancreatic problems and diseases
Our juice producer (pancreas) can have a few (and extremely serious) conditions affecting it, including:
As the insulin and glucagon maker, your pancreas is the main organ affected by diabetes. How it’s affected depends on the type of diabetes:
Type 1 diabetes – this is caused when your immune system attacks cells (beta cells) in your pancreas. It leaves the pancreas unable to produce insulin, and the damage is permanent. This type of diabetes has also been known as juvenile diabetes or Insulin Dependant Diabetes Mellitis (IDDM).
Type 2 diabetes – this is associated with hereditary factors and lifestyle factors , like obesity, lack of exercise or poor nutrition. In this case, your body can’t produce enough insulin, or use it effectively enough to provide you with energy. This has also been known as non-Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitis (NIDDM).
Depending on the severity, the pancreas may stop producing insulin altogether.
For more information about diabetes you can go to www.diabetesaustralia.com.au
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas and can be either acute or chronic.
Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly and severely. Symptoms can include:
- Upper abdominal pain
- Abdomen tenderness
- Fever and fever sweats
- Increased heartbeat
- Vomiting and nausea
Chronic pancreatitis can occur on a recurrent or ongoing basis. Symptoms can include:
- Upper abdominal pain
- Unintentional weight loss
- Foul-smelling, oily stools
If you have any concern regarding symptoms you may be experiencing, go to your doctor! Your local GP will be able to help assess and prescribe any available treatments.
3000 Australians develop pancreatic cancer every year and is the 10th and 9th most common cancer in men and women respectively.
Unfortunately, rates of survival for pancreatic cancer is generally low. This is because:
- Pancreatic cancer isn’t usually diagnosed till it’s in later stages
- 80% of pancreatic cancers have spread by the time it’s diagnosed
There are often no symptoms in the early stages of the disease, but some symptoms can include:
- Pain in the abdomen
- Appetite loss
- Vomiting and nausea
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Yellowing skin and the whites of the eye (jaundice)
- Dark urine or pale stool
How to take care of your pancreas
- Keep hydrated: dehydration can impact on pancreatic function, so make sure you’re taking on healthy water drinking habits
- Limit your alcohol intake: alcohol dehydrates and places extra load on your pancreas. Check out the Department of Health’s Guidelines for Alcohol Consumption to understand what it means to drink responsibly
- Eat a balanced diet high in vegetables, fruit, fibre, and good fats
- Quit smoking – easy to say, hard to do. No worries though, we’ve got a handy guide to quit smoking here
Health Direct Gov - Pancreas
Better Health Victoria - Pancreas