Pancreas and Diabetes

The pancreas is the gland responsible for releasing the hormone insulin in response to blood sugar, or blood glucose, levels. The insulin and blood glucose cycle is a constant process for the body to use ingested sugars as energy. Diabetes is a condition in which the pancreas does not function properly and hyperglycemia occurs on a regular basis without intervention.

Hyperglycemia is a condition in which blood glucose levels are too high. Untreated high blood glucose levels can result in the body breaking down fats for energy, resulting in the accumulation of a metaolic byproduct, ketones, in the blood. The body cannot handle large amounts of ketones, leading to a condition called ketoacidosis. Ketoacidosis can lead to diabetic coma, followed by death. The symptoms of hyperglycemia are increased thirst and increased urination. Treatment depends on the extent of the pancreatic dysfunction.

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, and is often referred to adult-onset diabetes, though it is being seen more commonly in children and teenagers in recent years. Diet, weight, and genetics have been linked to the development of this disorder, which is often controlled by diet and exercise to prevent a high intake of sugars and decrease the person’s weight (for severe diabetics, exercise should be pursued with caution because it can increase ketoacidosis further).  In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas either does not produce enough insulin or the body is insulin-resistant, it cannot use the insulin the pancreas produces. So the pancreas is responsible for the hyperglycemia in non-insulin-resistant type 2 diabetes mellitus.

On the other hand, the pancreas is responsible for all type 1 diabetes. Sometimes referred to as juvenile diabetes because of its usual onset in children, type 1 diabetes mellitus is an autoimmune disorder in which the pancreas is the target of the body’s immune cells. The exact cause of this attack on the pancreas is unknown. The insulin producing islet cells are destroyed, leading to a lack of insulin production. Type 1 diabetics inject insulin regularly based on their blood glucose level, which is measured with a glucose meter from a small blood sample. A surgically placed, automated artificial pancreas is currently being pursued by biotech companies to make the lives of type 1 diabetics easier.

Diabetes treatments consist of manually controlling blood glucose levels when the pancreas and the physiological system cannot. This includes controlling insulin and glucagon levels by injection. Glucagon is another hormone released by the pancreas, controlling the release of stored glucose when the blood sugar levels drop below useful levels, called hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia can lead to confusion, fatigue, coma, seizures, and death if left untreated. The condition can occur if too much insulin is used by diabetics, who cannot quickly recover because the pancreas does not function properly.