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Pancreas: Functions, Anatomy & Insulin Production

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  • 0:01 Pancreas
  • 1:50 Insulin
  • 2:41 Islets of Langerhans
  • 3:30 Glucagon
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Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

The islets of Langerhans within your pancreas produce the hormones insulin and glucagon. In this lesson, you will learn how these hormones regulate your blood sugar level in opposite ways.

Pancreas

Tucked away inside your abdomen is an organ that is important to blood sugar regulation, called the pancreas. Though you do not always hear about the pancreas unless a problem arises, you will see from this lesson that it plays a key role in maintaining your body's homeostasis. In fact, both your digestive system and endocrine system count on the pancreas to carry out vital functions.

Your pancreas is about six inches long and sits deep in your abdomen, partly behind your stomach. The pancreas is somewhat triangular in shape, and its broad end comes up against the first section of the small intestine that we previously learned is called the duodenum. This is a unique gland because it is both an endocrine gland and an exocrine gland. As we previously learned, what makes a gland endocrine or exocrine depends on how it secretes the product it produces. For example, an endocrine gland secretes hormones directly into the blood. In contrast, an exocrine gland secretes a substance through a duct.

In the case of your pancreas, we see that it can be considered an exocrine gland because it secretes digestive juices into the duodenum through the pancreatic duct, as seen in this picture:

The pancreas secretes digestive juices through the pancreatic duct, making it an exocrine gland.
diagram showing pancreatic duct

Now, when we study the digestive system, we see that the pancreas is a vital digestive organ. However, for this lesson, we will be focusing on the endocrine functions of the pancreas.

So, if an endocrine organ secretes hormones directly into the blood, you might be wondering which hormones come from the pancreas? The answer is insulin and glucagon, and as we will see shortly, both help regulate the amount of sugar in your blood, but in opposite ways.

Insulin

Insulin is produced inside the islets of Langerhans, named after their discoverer.
Paul Langerhans

Insulin is a hormone that lowers blood sugar levels. It is good to note that it would be equally correct to say that it's a hormone that lowers blood glucose levels. Because glucose is the chief sugar in the blood, these terms are used interchangeably. It almost seems too simple to say that insulin lowers blood sugar, or blood glucose, because in reality, it is up to insulin to move excess sugar out of your blood. It is insulin that allows your cells to use glucose, which is a major energy source for all of your cells. It is almost like insulin has the 'secret knock' that opens the door of the cell and lets glucose pass from the blood into the cell. Without insulin's 'secret knock,' glucose cannot enter.

Islets of Langerhans

Insulin is produced in your pancreas inside the islets of Langerhans. They get their name from Paul Langerhans, a German pathologist who discovered them. They are sometimes more simply called the pancreatic islets. In either term that you want to use, we see that the word islet is included. This word means 'island,' and in fact, the islets of Langerhans are island clusters of endocrine cells within the pancreas. The islets of Langerhans actually contain different types of endocrine cells. We see that the beta cells are the cells of the islets of Langerhans that produce insulin. Beta cells both store and release insulin, and this allows beta cells to react quickly when your blood sugar levels rise - say, after eating three cream-filled donuts.

Glucagon

Glucagon is the antagonist of insulin and has the opposite effect on blood glucose levels. Therefore, we can define glucagon as a hormone that raises blood sugar levels. If you have been fasting and haven't eaten all day, your blood glucose level drops. At this time, it's glucagon that comes to the rescue. It does this by telling the liver to break down a form of stored glucose we refer to as glycogen and release it into the blood. Like insulin, the hormone glucagon is produced inside your pancreas, but unlike insulin, it is the alpha cells that are the cells of the islets of Langerhans that produce glucagon.

Alpha cells in the pancreas are called upon to release glucagon when blood glucose levels fall.
Alpha cells

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