In this article, we look at how the pancreas is involved in diabetes. We also describe complications of diabetes that relate to the pancreas and other disorders of the organ.
What to know about the pancreas
The pancreas produces insulin and sits in the abdomen.
The pancreas produces digestive enzymes, and it is located in the abdomen, behind the stomach.
It also produces insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels. The cells that produce insulin are called beta cells. These are located in the islets of Langerhans, a set of structures within the pancreas.
Insulin helps the body use the carbohydrates in food for energy. It transports glucose from the blood into the body’s cells. Glucose provides the cells with the energy they need to function.
If there is too little insulin in the body, cells can no longer take up glucose from the blood. As a result, levels of glucose in the blood rise. A doctor may refer to this as having high blood sugar or hyperglycemia.
Hyperglycemia is responsible for most of the symptoms and complications of diabetes.
How is the pancreas linked with diabetes?
Diabetes is characterized by high blood sugar. This results from insufficient insulin production or function, which can be one effect of problems with the pancreas.
People with diabetes experience high or low blood sugar levels at different times, depending on what they eat, how much they exercise, and whether they take insulin or diabetes medication.
Type 1 and type 2 diabetes both involve the pancreas.
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes happens when the pancreas does not make enough, or any, insulin. Without insulin, the cells cannot get enough energy from food.
This form of diabetes results from the body’s immune system attacking the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. The beta cells become damaged and, over time, the pancreas stops producing enough insulin to meet the body’s needs.
People with type 1 diabetes can rebalance their blood glucose levels by receiving insulin injections or wearing an insulin pump every day.
Doctors once called this type “juvenile diabetes,” because it often develops during childhood or teenage years.
There is no clear cause of type 1 diabetes. Some evidence suggests that it results from genetic or environmental factors. An estimated 1.25 million people in the United States are living with type 1 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes
This type occurs when the body builds up a resistance to insulin. While the pancreas may still produce the hormone, the body’s cells cannot use it effectively.
As a result, the pancreas produces more insulin to meet the body’s needs, and it is often unable to keep up with the increased demand.
With an insufficient amount of insulin in the body, diabetes develops. Over time, the beta cells become damaged and may stop producing insulin altogether.
As with type 1 diabetes, type 2 can cause high blood sugar levels and prevent the cells from getting enough energy.
Type 2 diabetes may result from genetics and family history. Lifestyle factors, such as obesity, lack of exercise, and poor diet also play a role. Treatment often involves increasing levels of exercise, improving the diet, and taking some prescription medications.
A doctor may be able to detect type 2 diabetes early, in a stage called prediabetes. A person with prediabetes may be able to prevent or delay the onset of the condition by making changes to their diet and exercise routine.
Pregnancy can cause type 2 diabetes, known as gestational diabetes. This can result from complications during pregnancy and delivery.
After giving birth, gestational diabetes usually goes away, though it increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
Diabetes and pancreatitis
Symptoms of pancreatitis can include nausea and fever.
- acute pancreatitis, in which symptoms come on suddenly and last for a few days
- chronic pancreatitis, a long-lasting condition in which symptoms come and go for several years
Chronic pancreatitis can damage the cells in the pancreas, and this can cause diabetes.
Pancreatitis is treatable, but severe cases may require hospitalization. A person should take pancreatitis seriously, as it can be life-threatening.
Symptoms of pancreatitis include:
- pain in the upper abdomen that can radiate toward the back
- pain that feels worse after eating
- abdominal tenderness
- a racing pulse
Diabetes and pancreatic cancer
The onset of type 2 diabetes later in life may be a symptom of this type of cancer. Another symptom involves blood sugar levels becoming problematic after having been well-controlled.
The link between diabetes and pancreatic cancer is complex. Diabetes increases the risk of developing this type of cancer, and pancreatic cancer can sometimes lead to diabetes.
Other risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:
- a poor diet
In its early stages, this type of cancer can cause no symptoms. Doctors often diagnose it when it is more advanced.
Other disorders of the pancreas
Cystic fibrosis can lead to the development of insulin-requiring diabetes.
In a person with cystic fibrosis, sticky mucus causes scar tissue to form on the pancreas, and the scarring can prevent the organ from producing enough insulin. As a result, a person can develop cystic fibrosis-related diabetes (CFRD).
Signs and symptoms of CFRD can resemble those of cystic fibrosis. A person may not know that they have CFRD until they undergo a routine test for diabetes.
Diabetes is linked with the pancreas and insulin. Too little insulin can cause periods of high blood sugar, which are responsible for the symptoms of diabetes.
Over time, repeated episodes of high blood sugar can cause serious complications, which is why people with diabetes should monitor their blood sugar levels.
Some chronic conditions, such as pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis, can cause type 2 diabetes.
A person may be able to prevent type 2 diabetes by not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthful diet, and exercising regularly.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are manageable health conditions. Lifestyle modifications and medications can help people manage their symptoms.
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