What is the Pancreas?

What is the Pancreas?

The pancreas is a gland about six inches long that is nestled deep in the abdomen. It is shaped like a flat pear, and is surrounded by the stomach, liver, small intestine, spleen and gallbladder. It is both an exocrine and endocrine gland that plays a vital part in the body’s digestive system, and in the body’s production of insulin and glucagon, which helps regulate and control blood sugar levels (glucose).

If you want to visualize the position of the pancreas, the physicians at Johns Hopkins Hospital recommend the following practice: touch your right thumb and pinkie fingers together, keeping the other three fingers pressed together and straight. Then, place your hand in the center of your belly just below your lower ribs, with your fingers pointing to your left. Your hand will be the approximate shape, and at the approximate level of your pancreas.

Because of the deep location of the pancreas, tumors of the pancreas are rarely able to be felt by pressing on the abdomen, which explains why most symptoms of pancreatic cancer do not appear until the tumor has grown large enough to interfere with the function of the pancreas, or other nearby organs such as the stomach, duodenum, liver, or gallbladder.

What Does the Pancreas Do?

As an endocrine gland, the pancreas produces hormones, namely insulin and glucagon. Insulin is a hormone that lowers blood sugar levels, while glucagon raises them. The pancreas secretes these hormones into the bloodstream, and they work together to maintain the body’s proper blood sugar levels. 

The bulk of the pancreas is made up of exocrine cells that make enzymes, or digestive juices, which are secreted into the small intestine, and helps further digest food once it has left the stomach. It’s a process that is crucial to the body’s proper functions. Put very simply: in regards to its exocrine function, a healthy pancreas produces the right chemicals at the right times in the right quantities, and helps us properly digest the food we eat. 

For a much more thorough explanation of the pancreas and its functions, please visit the Pathology Department at Johns Hopkins Medicine.