- The pancreas is a small, thin organ that lies behind the stomach and under the liver.
- The pancreas is a vital organ with two crucial roles — helping the body digest food and making hormones that control blood sugar levels.
- Common diseases that can affect the pancreas include diabetes, pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer and cystic fibrosis.
What is the pancreas?
The pancreas is a thin, 15cm long organ that lies behind the stomach and under the liver. It is a vital organ with two crucial roles — helping the body digest food and making hormones that control blood sugar levels.
What is the function of the pancreas ?
The pancreas has two main functions. Firstly, it helps the body break down, digest and absorb food. Secondly, it makes hormones that help control your blood sugar levels.
What are the parts of the pancreas?
The pancreas is made up of glandular tissue and ducts (passages for body substances to flow through). These ducts help fluid from the pancreas flow into the duodenum (part of the small intestine).
The pancreas is made up of 2 types of cells.
- Endocrine cells (Islets of Langerhans): these cells are responsible for the production of hormones such as glucagon and insulin which work together to regulate your body’s blood sugar level.
- Exocrine cells (acinar cells): these cells release digestive enzymes which help break down food so your body can absorb and utilise the nutrients.
How does the pancreas work?
Cells in your pancreas produce and release digestive enzymes into your duodenum, which is the start of the small intestine. In the duodenum, the digestive enzymes break down partially-digested food from the stomach.
A 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 your blood glucose level steady.
What medical conditions are related to the pancreas?
Common diseases that can affect the pancreas include:
- pancreatitis — inflammation of the pancreas, which can be caused by gall bladder disease and excessive alcohol use
- 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 thick, sticky mucus, and this can prevent digestive enzymes being released into the duodenum
- pancreatic cancer — cancer of the pancreas
Symptoms associated with problems with the pancreas include:
- abdominal pain and tenderness
- loss of appetite
- jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
- foul-smelling poo
- weight loss
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How are diseases of the pancreas diagnosed?
To diagnose pancreatic diseases, your doctor may refer you for a range of tests that may include:
- blood tests
- stool (poo) tests
- CT scans
- endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) - a procedure to examine the pancreatic and bile ducts using a flexible camera (endoscope) and dye
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How can I take care of my pancreas?
Diet and lifestyle are important for maintaining a healthy pancreas. Here are some examples:
- Reducing your alcohol intake can reduce your risk of developing pancreatitis and diabetes.
- If you smoke, quitting can reduce your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Smokers are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers.
Resources and support
The National Pancreas Foundation will provide you with information on how the pancreas works and various medical conditions associated with the pancreas.
Read the Our mob and cancer sheet to learn more on pancreatic cancer for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people.
You can also call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for more information and advice.
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Last reviewed: October 2023