What is the Pancreas?

Tucked behind the stomach in the upper abdomen, the soft and flexible pancreas is generally 6-8 inches long, or 15-18 cm. It's shape looks like that of a tadpole with three parts: the head, the body and the tail.

The pancreas has long been an unsung hero of the body, though the deaths of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and computer science professor Randy Pausch, author of "The Last Lecture," both from pancreatic cancer, have brought more attention to its importance.

The truth is that the pancreas is a key player in digestion and in the regulation of blood sugar, making it an amazing multi-tasker.

Each day, clusters of cells in the pancreas produce about 1.5 liters of digestive juice that is ultimately emptied into the first loop of the small intestine (the duodenum). The juice contains critical enzymes that help break down fats, proteins and carbohydrates from food.  When the system works properly, the enzymes that break down proteins remain inactive until they are in the small intestine.  If the enzymes activate too soon, while still in the pancreas, they can cause inflammation and long-term damage (pancreatitis).

Blood Sugar Regulation
The pancreas has about 1 million or so tiny glands (pancreatic islets) that secrete the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. These two hormones work together around the clock to manage the level of sugar (glucose) in your blood so it remains constant through the day.  Without these hormones, the body's energy would surge after meals and crash while waiting for food.

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