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The pancreas is a thin, 15 cm long organ that lies behind the stomach and under the liver. It is a vital organ with two crucial roles — helping the body to digest food and making hormones that control blood sugar levels.

What does the pancreas do?

Most of the cells in the pancreas make and release digestive enzymes into the duodenum, which is the start of the small intestine. In the duodenum, the digestive enzymes break down partly digested food from the stomach.

A very small part of the pancreas makes hormones that help control blood sugar levels. This part has alpha cells (which make glucagon) and beta cells (which make insulin). Glucagon and insulin work together to keep blood glucose at the right level.

Common pancreas diseases

Common diseases that can affect the pancreas include:

  • pancreatitis — inflammation of the pancreas, which can be caused by gall bladder disease and alcoholism
  • diabetes — destruction or loss of beta cells can mean the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin for blood sugar control
  • cystic fibrosis — is associated with sticky mucus, and this can prevent digestive enzymes being released into the duodenum
  • pancreatic cancer — cancer of the pancreas

Depending on the pancreatic disease, symptoms can include:

To diagnose pancreatic diseases, your doctor may arrange for stool tests, blood tests, ERCP (endoscopic retrogade cholangiopancreatography, a procedure to examine the pancreatic and bile ducts using a flexible telescope and dye), ultrasound or CT scans.

How can I look after my pancreas?

Diet and lifestyle are important for maintaining a healthy pancreas, for example:

  • drinking little or no alcohol can reduce your risk of pancreatitis and diabetes
  • if you smoke, quitting can reduce your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Smokers are two to 3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers

If you are worried that you may have pancreas problems, check your symptoms with healthdirect's Symptom Checker and see your doctor.

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Last reviewed: June 2020

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