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About the Pancreas

The pancreas is an organ in the upper abdomen, behind the stomach. It produces substances known as digestive enzymes needed to break down and use food. These enzymes flow from the pancreas through the pancreatic duct into the upper part of the small intestine.

Within the pancreas are islet cells (Islets/Islands of Langerhans)—clumps of cells, which produce glucagon and insulin, the hormones that regulate glucose (sugar) in the blood.

  • Alpha cells in the islets make and release glucagon, which raises the level of glucose in the blood.
  • Beta cells in the islets make and release insulin, which controls the level of glucose in the blood.

Glucagon, produced by the alpha cells in the pancreas, causes the liver to release its stored glucose into the bloodstream. This raises the level of glucose in the blood when it goes too low.

Insulin is a hormone produced by beta cells in the pancreas. Insulin allows glucose to enter body cells, where it is used for energy. It also helps the body store extra glucose in liver, muscle, and fat cells. This stored glucose can be released and used for energy when needed.

Diabetes develops if the body does not produce enough insulin or does not use insulin properly. Normally, when a person eats, the pancreas produces the right amount of insulin to move glucose from blood into the body’s cells. In people with diabetes, however, the pancreas either produces little or no insulin, or the cells do not respond to the insulin that is produced. Glucose builds up in the blood, overflows into the urine, and passes out of the body. Thus, the body loses its main source of energy even though the blood contains large amounts of glucose.

If the body does not produce enough insulin, insulin shots may be needed. If the body does not use insulin properly, weight loss, exercise, and oral medication may be needed.

To learn more about diabetes in children and adolescents, visit the Child and Adolescent Diabetes Center. The diabetes center provides the following information:
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 2 Diabetes
Diabetes Complications
Diabetes Tests and Procedures
Diabetes Action Sets
Insulin and Oral Diabetes Medications
Diabetes Resources
Diabetes Glossary


Last modified on: 30 June 2015