The pancreas is called the “hidden organ” because it is located deep in the abdomen behind the stomach. About six to eight inches long in the adult, the organ contains thin tubes that come together like the veins of a leaf. These tubes join to form a single opening into the intestine that is located just beyond the stomach.
The pancreas produces juices and enzymes that flow through the tubes into the intestine, where they mix with food. The enzymes digest fat, protein, and carbohydrates so they can be absorbed by the intestine. Pancreatic juices, therefore, play an important role in maintaining good health. The pancreas also produces insulin, which mixes with the blood flowing through the organ. Insulin is important in regulating the amount of sugar (glucose) in the blood.
Digestive enzymes in the pancreas are necessary to break down protein, fat, and carbohydrates in foods that are ingested. When there is a deficiency of these enzymes, nutrients are not broken down, resulting in malnutrition and weight loss. This condition is termed malabsorption because the intestine is unable to absorb these vital nutrients.
The two major symptoms are diarrhea (frequently with fat droplets in the stool) and weight loss. This condition can result from any cause of pancreatitis, as well as from trauma and infection. Pancreatic enzymes can be taken by mouth to replace those that are no longer made by the pancreas.