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What is the Pancreas?

The pancreas is an organ of the digestive system located deep in the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach and in front of the spine. It is only about 2 inches wide and 6 to 8 inches long and sits horizontally across the abdomen. The pancreas is composed of three parts. The large, rounded end is called the head. It is located on the right side of the abdomen and near the beginning of the small intestine, which is called the duodenum. The middle section, called the body, is tucked behind the stomach. The thin end of the pancreas, called the tail, is located on the left side of the abdomen next to the spleen.

Two separate types of glandular tissue make up the bulk of the pancreas, exocrine and endocrine tissue. The exocrine tissue comprises 95 percent of the pancreas and acts as an exocrine gland. The endocrine tissue makes up the remaining 5 percent of the pancreas and acts as an endocrine gland.

Exocrine glandular tissue produces pancreatic enzymes to aid in the digestion of food. These enzymes are made in cells (called acinar cells) in the exocrine tissue. The pancreatic enzymes flow down a tube called the pancreatic duct, which is the main duct of the pancreas. This duct runs along the entire length of the pancreas and merges with the bile duct. From the pancreatic duct, the enzymes enter the duodenum. Bile from the liver flows down the bile duct and also empties into the duodenum. All of these fluids help the body digest food.

The endocrine glandular tissue of the pancreas produces hormones and releases them into the bloodstream. The hormones are made in collections of cells called the Islets of Langerhans, which are found in small clusters throughout the pancreas. Insulin is an important hormone made in these cells and helps control blood sugar levels.

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