What is the pancreas?
The pancreas is a narrow, flat organ about six inches long with head, middle, and tail sections. It is located deep within the abdominal cavity, below the liver and between the stomach and the spine. Its head section connects to the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine. Inside the pancreas, small ducts (tubes) feed digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas into the pancreatic duct. This large duct carries the digestive enzymes down the length of the pancreas, from the tail to the head section, and into the duodenum. The common bile duct also runs through the head section of the pancreas, carrying bile from the liver and gallbladder into the small intestine. The bile duct and pancreatic duct usually join just before entering the duodenum and share a common opening into the small intestine.
The pancreas consists of two kinds of tissues:
- Exocrine -- tissues that make powerful enzymes to digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. The enzymes normally are produced and carried in an inactive form to the duodenum, where activation then occurs as needed. Exocrine tissues also make and secrete bicarbonates that neutralize stomach acids and allow for the activation of pancreatic enzymes.
- Endocrine -- tissues that produce the hormones insulin and glucagon and release them into the bloodstream. These hormones regulate glucose transport into the body's cells and are crucial for maintaining normal glucose levels and energy production.