The pancreas is an organ of the digestive system and endocrine system of vertebrates. In humans, it is located in the abdomen behind the stomach and functions as a gland. The pancreas has both an endocrine and a digestive exocrine function. As an endocrine gland, it functions mostly to regulate blood sugar levels, secreting the hormones insulin, glucagon, somatostatin, and pancreatic polypeptide. As a part of the digestive system, it functions as an exocrine gland secreting pancreatic juice into the duodenum through the pancreatic duct. This juice contains bicarbonate, which neutralizes acid entering the duodenum from the stomach; and digestive enzymes, which break down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in food entering the duodenum from the stomach.
Inflammation of the pancreas is known as pancreatitis, with common causes including chronic alcohol use and gallstones. Because of its role in the regulation of blood sugar, the pancreas is also a key organ in diabetes mellitus. Pancreatic cancer can arise following chronic pancreatitis or due to other reasons, and carries a very poor prognosis, as it is often identified when it has spread to other areas of the body.
The word pancreas comes from the Greek πᾶν (pân, “all”) & κρέας (kréas, “flesh”). The function of the pancreas in diabetes has been known since at least 1889, with its role in insulin production identified in 1921.
The pancreas supplies digestive enzymes and bicarbonate to neutralize stomach acid so the enzymes can work properly in the intestine. Pancreatic insufficiency causes foul-smelling, bulky bowel movements, malnutrition and slowed growth and development. The pancreas also releases key hormones into the bloodstream. Some hormones produced in the islet cells of the pancreas and their effects are: insulin – lowers blood sugar; glucagon – raises blood sugar; somatostatin – inhibits many cells. If the cells in the pancreas that make insulin are damaged, patients may develop diabetes.