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Digestive-Health

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Updated 12 August 2020

Sponsored: Is your pancreas working properly?

The pancreas has two main functions: it helps with digestion and regulates blood sugar – so make sure you keep your digestive juices flowing.

The pancreas plays a big role in digestion.1 It is located inside your abdomen, just behind your stomach and is about the size of your hand.1 

During digestion, your pancreas makes pancreatic juices called enzymes.1 These enzymes break down foods, including sugars, fats, and starches.1

Your pancreas also helps your digestive system by making hormones.1 These are chemical messengers that travel through your blood.1

Pancreatic hormones, including insulin, help regulate your blood sugar levels and appetite, stimulate stomach acids, and tell your stomach when to empty.1

How the pancreas works

A healthy pancreas produces the correct chemicals in the proper quantities, at the right times, to digest the food we eat.2

The enzymes

The exocrine tissues secrete a clear, watery, alkaline juice that contains several enzymes.3 These break down food into small molecules that can be absorbed by the intestines.3

The enzymes include:

  • Trypsin and chymotrypsin to digest proteins3
  • Amylase to break down carbohydrates3
  • Lipase, to break down fats into fatty acids and cholesterol3

The hormones

The endocrine portion, or islets of Langerhans, secrete insulin and other hormones.3 Pancreatic beta cells release insulin when blood sugar levels rise.3

Insulin moves glucose from the blood into muscles and other tissues, for use as energy.3 It also helps the liver absorb glucose, storing it as glycogen in case the body needs energy during stress or exercise.3

When blood sugar falls, pancreatic alpha cells release the hormone glucagon.3 Glucagon causes glycogen to be broken down into glucose in the liver.3 The glucose then enters the bloodstream, restoring blood sugar levels to normal.3

Diseases of the Pancreas

Disorders affecting the pancreas include pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer and pancreatic exocrine insufficiency (PEI).2,3 Each disorder may exhibit different symptoms and requires different treatments.2

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that occurs when pancreatic enzyme secretions build up and begin to digest the organ itself.2 It can occur as acute painful attacks lasting a matter of days, or it may be a chronic condition that progresses over a period of years.2

Pancreatic Cancer

The most common form of pancreatic cancer is pancreatic adenocarcinoma, an exocrine tumour arising from the cells lining the pancreatic duct.2 A far less common form, endocrine tumours, account for less than 5% of all pancreatic tumours and are sometimes referred to as neuroendocrine or islet cell tumours.2

Pancreatic Exocrine Insufficiency (PEI)

When your pancreas doesn’t make enough of the enzymes that your body needs to break down and absorb nutrients, this causes problems in how you digest food and is a condition called Pancreatic Exocrine Insufficiency (PEI).3,4

Without enough pancreatic enzymes, the foods you eat won’t be fully digested, and you will not absorb all the nutrients and calories available from them.4

Pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy is available and involves the use of medications that contain enzymes to replace what the pancreas is no longer making or releasing.4

These medications contain proteases to digest protein, amylases to digest carbohydrates and lipases to digest fat. Digestion of protein, carbohydrates and fats helps prevent malabsorption.

Remember, your pancreas is important for digesting food and managing your use of sugar for energy after digestion.1 If you have any symptoms of pancreatic digestion problems, like loss of appetite, abdominal pain, fatty stools, or weight loss, call your healthcare provider.1

References1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Health. The Digestive Process: What Is the Role of Your Pancreas in Digestion? [Accessed 17 Jun 2020] Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/the-digestive-process-what-is-the-role-of-your-pancreas-in-digestion2. Columbia University Irving Medical Center. The Pancreas Center. The Pancreas and Its Functions. [Accessed 17 Jun 2020] Available from: https://columbiasurgery.org/pancreas/pancreas-and-its-functions#:~:text=The%20pancreas%20is%20an%20organ,function%20that%20regulates%20blood%20sugar. 3. Medical News Today. Pancreas: Functions and possible problems. [Accessed 17 Jun 2020] Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/100114. OncoLink (Penn University). Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT). Accessed 21 August 2019. Available from: https://www.oncolink.org/support/nutrition-and-cancer/during-and-after-treatment/pancreatic-enzyme-replacement-therapy-pert  S1 Creon® 10000. Each capsule contains enteric-coated granules of Pancreatin 150 mg. Registration Numbers: Namibia: 04/11.1/1015; South Africa: 33/11.1/0340.

For full prescribing information refer to the package insert approved by the Medicines Regulatory Authority. Abbott Laboratories S.A. (Pty) Ltd. 1940/014043/07.

Abbott Place, 219 Golf Club Terrace, Constantia Kloof, 1709. Tel: (011) 858 2000. Date of publication: July 2020. Promotional Review Number: SAF2144891

 
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