Pancreas 101Jan 28, 2014
You may know the pancreas as the organ that controls the body’s glucose. But what is glucose and why does it matter? Dr. Jeffery Campsen gives the basics on the pancreas: what it actually does, what can go wrong with it, whether you can live without one, and what you can do if you have problems with your pancreas.
Interviewer: This is Pancreas 101. What does it do? What can go wrong, and what can you do about it? That's coming up next on the Scope.
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Interviewer: All right. Time to learn your pancreas basics with Dr. Jeffrey Campsen from the University of Utah, First of all, let's start out with what is the pancreas?
Dr. Jeffrey Campsen: The pancreas is an endocrine exocrine organ, and what that basically means is it sits in the middle of your abdomen, and it secretes hormones and different substances into the bloodstream but also into the intestines. People know it mostly as the organ that secretes insulin which then controls your glucose or your sugar. And if you don't have that, you become a diabetic. But it does a lot of other functions that helps with digestion of food and regulation of the body's means to produce energy through the breakdown of sugar.
Interviewer: So a pretty important organ.
Dr. Jeffrey Campsen: It's a very important organ in the sense that you could live without it, but it's very difficult to live without it, and you can't live without it without supplementation of the products that it produces.
Interviewer: And what problems can arise with the pancreas, and are they just naturally occurring or is it lifestyle oriented?
Dr. Jeffrey Campsen: It's both. First, some people are born with deficiencies in their pancreas. They're most known as Type 1 Diabetics where early on as a child it's found that the pancreas actually doesn't work particularly right. Many people believe that it's an autoimmune disorder where the body is actually attacking the pancreas. It works maybe at birth, but sometime in the next ten years the body actually attacks it and it fails. And then they become a diabetic from that. There's also you can damage your pancreas by treating your body poorly through alcohol, drug use, different substances that you put into your body can actually destroy your pancreas. Then ultimately you become a diabetic, or a pancreas cripple from that standpoint. And then other types of infection can actually ruin the pancreas. It's attached to your liver through a series of ducts, and if you have liver disease or gallbladder disease, that can actually damage your pancreas and cause pancreatitis which then pancreatitis then heals from that, scars, and slowly becomes fibrotic and also stops working.
Interviewer: Let's get back to the lifestyle. So how do you really have to abuse your pancreas before it's going to stop working?
Dr, Jeffrey Campsen: I don't think very much actually. I think to get to the point where it's completely burnt out, that's probably years worth of abuse to the pancreas. But everybody's built differently, and some people are much more susceptible to alcohol or different type substances and can damage their pancreas. Whereas other people are built in a way that they can tolerate it more. So you don't know until it's too late whether or not those substances have hurt you to the point where you can't recover from that.
Interviewer: And what are some of the symptoms then of a pancreas not functioning? What would I experience?
Dr. Jeffrey Campsen: I think acutely, meaning immediately, if there's a problem you would have intense abdominal pain, nausea probably, vomiting. Over the long-term, it sneaks up upon you insidiously with feeling very lethargic, tired, off. And that's basically showing an imbalance of your ability to regulate your sugar. So what you're actually having is very high sugar levels in your blood creating a feeling of basically feeling sick. Then, a lot of these patients go to the doctor. They find out that their sugar which should be maybe at a level of 100 is actually at a level of 600 which actually ultimately can be life threatening. Some people are actually found in a coma before they realize what has happened. And at that point you may not actually come out of that coma.
Interviewer: What type of life do you have if your pancreas fails you?
Dr. Jeffrey Campsen: It's a very difficult life. If your pancreas fails you, you become what they call a "brittle diabetic." Not only can you control your sugars going into high, but then if you add insulin they can actually go very low. And your pancreas keeps your sugars from going too low. If your sugars go too low, the cells in your body can't work, including the cells in your brain that allow you to breathe and your heart to beat. And so it can become fatal.
Interviewer: And what about other lifestyle considerations, like are you going to have to carry a piece of equipment around with you?
Dr. Jeffrey Campsen: Many patients are able to regulate their sugar with something called an insulin pump. And this pump basically then reads your sugar levels and then doses insulin in. Some patients are able to do it with just pills. I think it depends on the type of diabetes that you ultimately have, meaning there's Type 1 where you don't really produce any insulin and then Type 2 where you actually produce insulin but you're resistant to it. To get back to what you were saying as far as lifestyle, the Type 2 diabetics that actually produce insulin but are resistant to it are the patients that you want to counsel to lose weight. Obesity is one of the major health issues in the world today, and the people that are overweight ultimately are hurting their pancreases. Their pancreases can't handle the weight, and then they become a Type 2 diabetic.
Interviewer: And finally, what's your final thought for somebody listening to this when it comes to the pancreas?
Dr. Jeffrey Campsen: I think basically the healthier your body is the better the organs that you house are going to do. And so if you want to live a long time, you have to treat your body well, which is an old concept but it still holds true.
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