The pancreas is a large organ approximately six inches long and is a key part of the digestive and endocrine systems. It is located deep within the upper abdomen, surrounded by the stomach, small intestine, liver and spleen.
This organ is shaped like a pear, broad at one end and narrow at the other end. It is divided in three sections – the broad end of the pancreas is called the head, the midsection is called the body and the narrow end is called the tail. If pancreas health is compromised a number of serious disorders can occur within the body.
Functions of the Pancreas
The pancreas performs two important functions within the body.
The first function belongs to the exocrine pancreas. The pancreas produces digestive juices and enzymes to help digest fats and proteins. When food has been partially digested by the stomach, it is pushed into the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine).
Secreting its enzymes into the duodenum helps to prevent the protein-digesting enzyme known as trypsin from eating the protein-based pancreas or its duct. Pancreatic digestive juices and enzymes are released through a small duct attached to the duodenum to mix with the food. The exocrine pancreas also produces enzymes that break down carbohydrates (amylase) and fats (lipase) as well as sodium bicarbonate which helps to neutralize the stomach acids in food.
The second function belongs to the endocrine pancreas. The pancreas produces the hormone insulin together with a variety of other hormones. Insulin helps to control the body’s blood sugar (glucose) levels. It is produced by small groups of pancreatic cells called the Islets of Langerhans, which are also known as the “islet cells”.
Insulin is secreted when your blood sugar is raised and it causes the muscles and other bodily tissues to take up glucose from the blood to fuel their activity. Insulin also promotes the absorption of glucose into the liver, where it is stored as glycogen for use in response to stress or exercise. If the islets of Langerhans produce too little insulin, glucose levels in the blood are raised and can result in Diabetes as well as increasing the risk of a number of other problems throughout the body.
Diagnosing a Pancreatic Disorder
Pancreatic Disorders can be discerned by their symptoms. Symptoms of pancreas problems can resemble unrelated ailments so it is a good idea to be checked out by a medical professional if you feel that something is wrong. A doctor can perform some basic tests to determine the underlying cause of your symptoms, and then diagnose whether a pancreatic disorder is to blame.
Symptoms of a Pancreatic Disorder
* Pain in the upper abdomen
* Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
* Back pain
* Loss of appetite
Types of Pancreatic Disorders
Symptoms of pancreas problems can be caused by many different factors. It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis before beginning any type of treatment in order to make sure you are treating the correct underlying condition.
Acute pancreatitis refers to sudden-onset inflammation of the pancreas. This disorder is caused when the pancreas becomes inflamed as a result of enzymes not leaving the pancreas. It leads to burning and irritation, and the enzymes may also eat into the abdominal cavity.
Common causes include drinking too much alcohol and gallstones blocking the bile tubes. Other contributing factors may also include drugs, physical damage to the pancreas, mumps or pancreatic cancer.
Chronic pancreatitis refers to recurring episodes of inflammation. When inflammation persists, it destroys part of the pancreas and reduces its ability to function. Common symptoms include digestive upsets and fatty, foul-smelling stools. Alcoholics are at increased risk of developing chronic pancreatitis.
Pancreatic cancer infects the cells of the duct and spreads into the body of the pancreas. Blood vessels and nerves which are near to the pancreas may also become involved in the spread of the cancerous cells. Risk factors include cigarette smoking, chronic pancreatitis and advanced age (over 65 years old). If left untreated, pancreatic cancer can spread to all the abdominal organs as well as other parts of the body.
Diabetes occurs either when the pancreas stops producing insulin or the body is unable to use the insulin it produces. Both result in glucose, the body's fuel, not being absorbed by the cells and building up in the bloodstream. Insulin is needed to be present and working for this absorption into the cells to occur. There are two types of diabetes.
Type 1 Diabetes is insulin dependent and diabetics must inject themselves with insulin daily to control blood sugar levels. In type 2 diabetes, the body produces its own insulin, but the cells are unable to respond to it properly. This form of diabetes is associated with obesity and in some cases pregnancy. Complications of high blood sugar levels can result in kidney damage, eye damage, nerve damage and increased risk of stroke or heart attack.
Help for Pancreatic Disorders
Treatment for pancreatic disorders depends on the cause. These are serious disorders and intensive medical treatment and care is required. Lifestyle changes including adjustments to diet and elimination of alcohol and smoking are also required.
Surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and life long medication such as insulin may be necessary to treat individual disorders of the pancreas.
Natural Remedies for the Pancreas
Natural and holistic remedies can be highly effective when used in combination with other conventional treatments. These remedies manage to address the symptoms of pancreas problems as well as the individual’s overall health and wellbeing. Herbal and homeopathic remedies are gentle, yet effective without the harmful side effects of conventional medicine.
Herbs such as Galega officinalis maintain pancreatic health and healthy insulin levels while Vaccinium myrtillus (Bilberry) is traditionally recommended to promote healthy blood sugar levels as well as healthy insulin production. Gymnema sylvestre is a well-known and highly respected Ayurvedic remedy which is also known as the 'sugar killer' as it is said to remove the taste for sweet foods.
Another powerful herb is Ginkgo biloba which has a beneficial effect on peripheral and cerebral circulation and can therefore help to promote pancreas health as well as healthy body tissue and circulation. Remember to find a remedy that suits your individual needs obtain all herbal and homeopathic remedies from a reputable source.