What is the Pancreas?

1st November 2019

Guts UK is the only UK charity funding a research fellowship into pancreatitis. To kick off our Kranky Panky Pancreatitis Awareness Campaign, we want to introduce people to their pancreas, so they can better understand its important role in digestion and what can go wrong.

The role of the digestive system is to turn food and liquid into the building blocks that our bodies need to function effectively. To do this, a variety of enzymes and other substances are produced and utilised – breaking food down into smaller molecules. The role of the pancreas is to facilitate this process.

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a gland that lies in the upper half of the abdomen (behind the stomach and in front of the spine). It’s salmon pink, six inches long and about as thick as your wrist at its widest part.

Why do we have a pancreas?

The pancreas has two main functions. One is to produce digestive enzymes, that pass into the small intestine to aid the chemical digestion of fat, carbohydrates and protein. The second is to produce hormones such as insulin.

What can go wrong?

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. It can present as acutely inflamed (acute pancreatitis) or chronically inflamed (chronic pancreatitis).

Acute pancreatitis is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas gland, beginning in the cells in the pancreas that produce the digestive enzymes. The pancreas becomes red, angry and swollen. In severe cases, the pancreas and fatty tissue surrounding it can be damaged beyond recovery. Gallstones and alcohol account for approximately 8 in 10 acute pancreatitis attacks, but for 1 in 10 people – no cause will be identified.

Chronic pancreatitis is a long-standing inflammation of the pancreas. A normal pancreas is soft with a smooth surface. In chronic pancreatitis, this surface becomes harder and knobbly. There is no single cause of chronic pancreatitis. In most sufferers, there is probably a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Although heavy smoking and drinking are risk factors, it is rare that heavy smokers/drinkers develop chronic pancreatitis.

What you can do:

Pancreatitis has been under-researched for decades, especially when considering the devastating impact it can have upon families. At Guts UK, we’re proud to be the only UK charity funding a research fellowship into pancreatitis, but we must do so much more to help families affected by this dreadful condition. Please support our crucial research programme today or take part in pancreas-themed awareness and fundraising.

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