What is pancreatic juice?

Pancreatic juice is a fluid secreted by the pancreas, an organ located very close to the digestive tract with ducts that drain into the small intestine. Like other organs associated with digestion, the pancreas plays a role in breaking down food so the body can metabolize it. Pancreatic juice is just one of the fluids secreted by this organ; The pancreas is also responsible for producing insulin as well as other hormones.

There are two components to pancreatic juice. The first is a solution of bicarbonate and water emitted by the epithelial cells that line the pancreatic ducts. This alkaline solution is designed to help neutralize stomach acid so digestive enzymes can work more effectively. The other component is a group of enzymes designed to process carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. In many cases, the pancreas actually releases precursors to these enzymes, and the enzymes develop in the intestinal tract in response to other compounds.

Pancreatic juice is released into the small intestine, where it acts on food as it goes. As food is metabolized, usable compounds are absorbed by the intestine, while waste products move along the digestive tract, where they will eventually be expressed by the body. The digestive process is designed to be as efficient as possible, although in people with medical problems involving digestion, a telltale sign often involves a breakdown in metabolism.

The pancreas works in harmony with the duodenum. As the duodenum senses fats, proteins, and other compounds, it releases hormones to trigger activity in the pancreas. These hormones can increase or decrease secretions and are designed to time the release of pancreatic juice, insulin, and other compounds to match metabolic needs. If this process is interrupted, people may begin to have trouble digesting certain foods.

In some individuals, pancreatic disease requires removal of the pancreas for medical reasons. These people must make dietary adjustments and take medications to compensate for the lack of pancreatic juice, insulin, and other compounds produced in this organ. Medications must be taken for life, and patients should watch for early signs of complications, indicating that their medications are not in balance or that they are not timing their doses properly. Physicians and nutritionists help patients who require pancreas removal develop and regularly update a treatment plan to stay as healthy as possible.

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