What Role Does the Pancreas Play in Diabetes?

For many of us, we first learned of the pancreas in a middle school biology class, the name sticking with us because it was kind of funny. Even in those classrooms of the past, the organ shaped a bit like an ear of corn was usually upstaged in those early lectures on the digestive system in favor of bigger “stars” like the stomach or the intestines. It was a disservice because the pancreas is one of the most important organs we have.

The pancreas is also a part of the endocrine system, a glandular organ that is responsible for producing many hormones that allow humans to extract energy from food. It is connected to the rest of the digestive system by the pancreatic duct, where food mixes with the pancreatic “juice,” allowing the body to absorb nutrients from lipids, proteins, and carbohydrate.

One enzyme the pancreas is responsible for is the production of insulin, the peptide hormone that is crucial to the body’s ability to metabolize glucose from the blood. Like any part of the human body, however, it can fail.

Type 1 Diabetes

If the pancreas stops producing (or produces very little) insulin, that is type 1 diabetes. Insulin injections replace this necessary enzyme when the pancreas is no longer capable of producing it. In extreme cases, hospitals can transplant a healthy donor pancreas in order to treat type 1 diabetes. The medical community is also working to create an artificial pancreas that can be used in much the same way.

Type 2 Diabetes

With type 2 diabetes, the pancreas is still producing insulin, but the body is not able to use it. Known as insulin resistance, the direct result is a buildup of sugar in the bloodstream. The pancreas continues to produce insulin, but soon the body’s higher demand for insulin outweighs the organ’s increased output. In turn, this ultimately reduces the pancreas’s ability to produce insulin at all.

Sources: CDC, Mayo Clinic, LiveStrong
Photo: Pexels

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