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Tuesday, May 21, 2013
The pancreas is a small organ located just behind the stomach. Its main function is to produce insulin in just the right amount to maintain constant glucose levels in the body.
The body's cells are designed so that they function best when there is a certain amount of glucose, or sugar, in the fluid that surrounds them. Too much glucose in the body will turn the fluid that surrounds the body's cells into a bath of sugar that hinders many normal functions of these cells.
Why we need glucose
Although glucose is not of much use to the body in the bloodstream, or in the fluid that surrounds the body's cells, it is still something that we need. In fact, it is glucose that is the body's main source of energy, but glucose must get inside cells to create the energy that the cells need to function. The problem is that cells have a membrane or covering around the outside that won't let glucose in. This is where insulin becomes important, because it is insulin that opens up cells to glucose.
Maintaining a constant level of glucose is a delicate process that is controlled by the pancreas and the insulin it produces. Under normal conditions, this process is almost like a dance. Glucose levels in the blood lead the pancreas to release just the right amount of insulin to keep the amount of glucose in the blood stream and surrounding the cells at an even level.
After you eat, nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are broken down by the digestive system. Through this process, nutrients become smaller and simpler molecules that can be absorbed into the blood stream. One of these nutrients is glucose. As the concentration of glucose in the bloodstream rises, the pancreas receives a signal to release insulin.
The insulin attaches to a place on the cell much the same way a key would fit into a lock. This opens the door for glucose to enter the cell. In a muscle cell, this means that the insulin will open up the muscle cells to allow glucose to enter and eventually create the energy needed for the muscle to contract.
The cause of abnormal pancreas function in diabetics is insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when the cells stop responding to insulin, meaning the door which allows glucose to enter won't open. Because the cells aren't allowing glucose to enter, the amount of glucose in the blood gets higher and higher. As long as there is too much glucose in the blood, and too little glucose in the cell, the pancreas will continue to produce insulin until the glucose level goes down. However, if the cells in the body have become insulin resistant, the amount of glucose in blood will never go down. The pancreas will continue to try to lower glucose levels by producing more and more insulin, but eventually it will wear out. Often this is the first cause of diabetes.
What Happens When the Pancreas Stops Working
The increased production of insulin can some times help the cells to allow glucose to enter, but eventually the pancreas wears out and cannot match the body's demand for insulin. When the pancreas fails to produce any insulin, blood glucose levels rise above normal. Eventually, with insulin failing to open cells so glucose can leave the bloodstream, glucose begin to build up in tissues such as the kidneys, eyes, heart, and around nerve endings. This build-up has very serious short and long-term complications.
This article is a NetWellness exclusive.
Last Reviewed: Dec 07, 2012
Robert M Cohen, MD
Professor of Clinical Medicine
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati
Bette K Idemoto, PhD, RN, ACNS-BC, CCRN
Clinical Nurse Specialist
Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing
Case Western Reserve University