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Health Chatter: Anatomy School: The Pancreas

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

Anatomy school helps you understand more about parts of your body, how they work, and how to look after them.

The Pancreas is part of your digestive system. It is a gland that has two main functions. It makes hormones including insulin and glucagon which help your body control sugar levels, and it produces enzymes which break down the food in the small intestines.

If there is something wrong with your pancreas, both of these functions can be affected.

Common issues & what to look out for:

Acute Pancreatitis – Sudden inflammation of the pancreas, often caused by stones in the gall bladder becoming stuck and preventing the normal flow of pancreatic fluid. Can also be caused by excessive alcohol consumption

Symptoms: Severe pain in the abdomen, sometimes worse after eating. Nausea, vomiting, fever and rapid heart rate. Immediate medical attention is required, and hospitalisation is likely although recovery rates are good.

Chronic Pancreatitis – Inflammation of the pancreas that gets progressively worse over time. More common in men than women, often develops between 30-40 years of age. Can be caused by heavy alcohol use, autoimmune conditions, blocked digestive ducts or can be hereditary.

Symptoms: Pain in the abdomen, sometimes worse after eating (not all individuals experience pain). Nausea, vomiting, weight loss, loose bowel, and pale, oily or fatty stools are other symptoms.

Pancreatic Cancer – Uncommon in people under 40, pancreatic cancer is caused by the abnormal growth of cells in the pancreas.

Symptoms: Pain in the abdomen or back, sometimes worse after eating, sudden weight loss, jaundice (yellowing of the skin), nausea, vomiting, changes to bowel habits and stools, fever, indigestion. Symptoms of diabetes may also develop if the cancer interferes with the insulin being produced.

Man in bed with stomach pain
If you have any of the above symptoms, contact your GP as soon as possible

Approximately 1 in 71 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in their lifetime, and smoking is the most avoidable cause.

How to take care of your pancreas

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is the best way to prevent problems with your pancreas. Gallstones are the most common cause, and these can be avoided by eating 5 portions of fruit and veg per day, and including wholegrain foods to lower your cholesterol.

Smoking is the main avoidable cause of pancreatic cancer.

Excessive alcohol consumption can also cause pancreatic problems. Stay within the recommended limits to help keep your pancreas and the rest of your body in top shape.

That’s no more that 14 units a week, spread over at least 3 days if you drink the full 14 units.

Visit your GP straight away if you have any concerns about your health, as pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer can be difficult to diagnose.

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