Beneath your ribs, you’ll find, among other things, the pancreas, an organ that works a lot like a personal health coach. This organ controls your sugar levels and produces a special juice that releases the nutrients from your food to help keep you in the best possible shape. The pancreas sits just behind your stomach, an appropriate home, as one of its jobs is to break down the food you eat. It aids digestion by producing a special tonic made of water, sodium bicarbonate, and digestive enzymes.
Sodium bicarbonate neutralizes the stomach’s natural acidity, so these digestive enzymes can perform their jobs. Lipase breaks down fatty substances, protease splits up proteins, and amylase divides carbohydrates to create energy-rich sugars. Most of those nutrients then get absorbed into the blood stream, and go on to enrich the body. While all this is happening, the pancreas works on another critical task, controlling the amount of sugar in your blood. It achieves this with the hormones insulin and glucagon, which are produced in special cells called the Islets of Langerhans.
Having too much or too little sugar can be life threatening, so the pancreas must stay on constant alert. After a big meal, the blood often becomes flushed with sugar. To bring us back to normal, the pancreas releases insulin, which makes the excess sugar move into cells, where it’s either used as an energy source, or stored for later. Insulin also tells the liver to shut down sugar production. On the other hand, if blood sugar is low, the pancreas releases a hormone called glucagon that tells the body’s cells and liver to release stored sugars back into the bloodstream.
The interplay between insulin and glucagon is what keeps our sugar levels balanced. But a faulty pancreas can no longer coach us like this, meaning that this healthy balance is destroyed. If it’s weakened by disease, the organ’s ability to produce insulin may be reduced, or even extinguished, which can trigger the condition known as diabetes. Without regular insulin release, sugar steadily builds up in the blood, eventually hardening the blood vessels and causing heart attacks, kidney failure, and strokes.
The same lack of insulin deprives cells of the energy-rich sugar they need to grow and function. People with diabetes also tend to have higher levels of glucagon, which makes even more sugar circulate. Without this internal health coach, our sugar levels would go haywire, and we wouldn’t be able to digest important nutrients. But like any coach, it’s not the pancreas’ job alone to keep us healthy. It needs our conscious participation, too.