The health, function of the pancreas

NIH pancreas gallbladder
NIH pancreas gallbladder

Strategies for Well-Being

Like many of you, more and more we are hearing about family, friends and loved ones facing a sudden issue with the Pancreas. Most people don’t know much about this organ, but in fact, it is an important part of the human body. It often goes unnoticed … until a problem occurs.

The pancreas is a gland that lies crosswise deep in the abdomen between the stomach and the spine. The pancreas serves two purposes – Endocrine and Exocrine functions:

• The endocrine function allows for the production of insulin, which is imperative for the metabolism and regulation of blood glucose – the thing that keeps you from being diabetic.

• The exocrine component aids in the digestion of food. Pancreatic juices filled with important enzymes flow into the small intestine and break down the carbohydrates, proteins and fats to allow absorption into the body.

Problems with the pancreas usually come down to two things – pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas where the enzymes that help digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates start digesting the pancreas. There are two types of pancreatitis: acute and chronic. Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly lasts a short amount of time – usually no more than two days – and heals itself. Symptoms for both may include: severe pain and swelling in the upper abdomen, jaundice, fever, sweating, nausea and rapid pulse. Causes for acute pancreatitis may include gallstones and drinking too much alcohol. Usual causes for chronic pancreatitis are alcohol abuse and excess iron in the blood.

Quite simply, pancreatitis refers to inflammation of the pancreas, usually marked by abdominal pain. The primary causes are identified in the medical community as alcohol, gallstones [by virtue of the shared biliary tree], infection, and certain medications such as diuretics.

There are strong indications that a major factor in chronic non-acute pancreatitis is the stress put on the pancreas through a diet high in cooked and processed foods – a diet deficient in natural or supplemented enzymes.

Research done on rats and chickens that were fed cooked foods revealed that the pancreas enlarged to handle the extra burden of the enzyme-deficient diet. In other words, the pancreas will enlarge over time when called upon to compensate for a diet high in enzyme deficient foods. Animals such as cattle, goats, deer and sheep get along with a pancreas about a third as large as the human pancreas because of their raw food diet. However, when these animals are fed heat-processed, enzyme-free food, their pancreas enlarges up to three times the normal size than when fed on a raw plant diet. Make no mistake; long-term, non-acute pancreatitis is a condition that affects virtually every person living on a modern diet – given enough time.

Just like pancreatitis, the incidence of pancreatic cancer is rising dramatically in the developed world. Pancreatic Cancer is a very deadly form of cancer. Because it is generally diagnosed late, this cancer is very tough to treat. Pancreatic cancer is one of the few cancers for which survival has not improved substantially over nearly 40 years. Because signs and symptoms of most pancreatic cancer may be mistaken for less-serious digestive problems, the disease is rarely detected before it has spread to nearby tissues or distant organs through the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

Research from Johns Hopkins points to the fact that the incidence of pancreatic cancer is 50 to 90 percent higher in African Americans than in any other racial group in the United States. Not only is pancreatic cancer more common among African Americans, but African Americans also have the poorest prognosis of any racial group because they often are diagnosed with advanced, and therefore, inoperable cancer.

Many studies have been conducted to determine why there is an increased risk of pancreatic cancer among African Americans. These studies suggest that environmental and socioeconomic factors may be important. Cigarette smoking, which causes about 25 percent of pancreatic cancer, is more common among African Americans and therefore may partially explain why pancreatic cancer is more common in African Americans. Other risk factors for pancreatic cancer that are more common in African Americans include diabetes mellitus, pancreatitis and being overweight.

Treatment of pancreatic cancer is especially difficult because the location of the pancreas means that tumors tend to spread rapidly to highly innervated – rich in nerves – regions of the back and spine.

Diets high in meats, cholesterol, fried foods, and nitrosamines increase the risk of both pancreatic cancer and pancreatitis, while diets high in raw fruits and vegetables reduce risks. A new study, from the World Cancer Research Fund, found eating processed meats like bacon and sausage could increase your risk for deadly pancreatic cancer. For every piece of sausage or two strips of bacon a person eats every day, there’s a 19 percent rise in risk for pancreatic cancer, the study found. The bottom line is that a Mediterranean diet is “pancreas friendly.”

Now that we have a basic understanding of the pancreas, there are a few things we can do to help a healthy pancreas stay that way: keep your weight in the desirable range, don’t overload your body with sugar, get some exercise, and limit your alcohol consumption.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist and is available through


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