Pancreas Functions - Beta Cells Secrete Insulin - Alpha Cells (Glucagon) - Pancreas Regulates Glucose Levels in Bloodstream

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The Pancreas: Insulin, Glucagon

What is the Pancreas?

The pancreas is a small gland (weighing less than 8oz) located close to the stomach. The pancreas has two main functions. It contains clusters of cells (islets of Langerhans) that secrete the pancreatic endocrine hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream in order to regulate blood glucose levels. In addition, the pancreas plays an important role in food digestion, secreting enzymes that break down fat, starch and proteins in the small intestine (duodenum).

How the Pancreas Regulates Blood Glucose

The pancreas contains thousands of clusters of cells (islets of Langerhans) - divided into two types, beta cells and alpha cells that secrete the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. When glucose levels in the bloodstream rise - eg. after eating - the pancreatic beta cells secrete insulin. The insulin stimulates cells in the body to grab the passing glucose, leading to a fall in blood glucose levels. The insulin also instructs the liver to grab glucose and convert it into the glucose-reserve known as glycogen. Conversely, when glucose levels in the bloodstream fall below a set point, alpha cells in the pancreas release the hormone glucagon which tells the liver to re-convert glycogen back to glucose and release it into the bloodstream. These two pancreatic hormones, insulin and glucagon, help to maintain blood glucose levels within healthy parameters. See also Insulin Resistance and Diabetes

Digestive Function of the Pancreas

The pancreas, liver and gallbladder all cooperate in the process of digestion, by secreting digestive juices that break down food molecules into substances that may be utilised (nutrients), or discarded, by the body.

The liver produces a green-colored juice (bile) made from waste products in the blood. Although manufactured in the liver, the bile is stored in the gall-bladder. The pancreas produces a potent digestive enzyme called pancreatic juice.

When food passes into the duodenum from the stomach, the duodenal lining secretes hormones that instruct the gallbladder and pancreas to start releasing their digestive juices in order to convert food into useable material.

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