5 Surprising Rules to Protect Your Pancreas
What does the pancreas do?
The pancreas has three main functions:
- Makes digestive enzymes to digest food in the small intestine.
- Neutralizes the acid from the stomach
- Regulates blood sugar through two main hormones
In fact, the pancreas can make 6 to 8 cups of digestive juices every day, including many different enzymes to digest your food, and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). At the same time, it has to keep your blood sugar normal by monitoring the blood for sugar and making hormones for the blood. The pancreas is a small but mighty powerhouse in your body!
I thought digestive enzymes were in my stomach?
The stomach has a few enzymes to break down large proteins and starches into smaller units. However, the pancreas produces enzymes for the small intestines to break down food into individual amino acids, fatty acids, sugar, vitamins and minerals. This is where most of our digestion takes places.
The system is so amazing that the pancreas doesn’t produce some random enzymes or the same ones all the time. Rather, the pancreas makes the exact enzymes needed to digest the certain foods you eat. Then, as each enzymes breaks off individual sugar molecules they are immediately absorbed, effectively spreading out the absorption of nutrients over time.
How does the pancreas know what I’m eating?
Just like your tongue has taste buds that tell you what is sweet, sour, bitter salty, the pancreas has “taste buds” or detectors to determine how to do its job. As the blood gets “sweeter,” your pancreas puts out more insulin. When your blood isn’t “sweet enough,” the pancreas makes glucagon to keep the blood sugar constant. For digestion, the pancreas knows how much acid is in the duodenum so it can make enough sodium bicarbonate. It also “tastes” the food coming from the stomach to determine how much, and what types of enzymes to make.
Why does the pancreas make “baking soda?”
Because the stomach makes a lot of acid, the food leaving the stomach and entering the small intestine is very acidic. The pancreas enzymes don’t work well with all that acid; they need a more alkaline environment to efficiently digest food. Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, neutralizes acid so your food can be digested and absorbed.
How does insulin work?
Insulin controls our energy supply. When we eat starches, they are digested into sugar, or glucose. All the fruit, vegetables, beans, grains, bread, cereal and so forth that we eat are digested into glucose, which our cells use for energy. However, glucose cannot get into the cell by itself.
As the glucose/sugar is absorbed through the intestines, the blood sugar level gets higher and higher. The cells need sugar, but they can’t get it without insulin. The pancreas makes insulin as the sugar rises. Insulin opens cell doors, allowing glucose in so the cells have energy. When the blood sugar starts to go down, the insulin level drops and the cells cannot take in any more glucose. The cells must then live on their stores, or use fat.
What is Glucagon?
The hormone that is the opposite of insulin is called glucagon. Glucagon also comes from the islet cells of the pancreas and is secreted when insulin is low. Glucagon causes the liver and fat cells to put out energy from their storage so there is always enough energy to run the body. The system is beautiful, keeping the blood sugar very constant in the face of eating and fasting, which causes highs and lows of sugar in the blood. Without these hormones, we would have to worry about eating too much or too little to keep our energy constant.
Why do I need insulin?
Insulin is the door that allows sugar into cells. Every cell in the body has receptors for insulin but muscle, liver, and fat cells require insulin to get sugar into the cell. Without insulin, these cells get no glucose for energy. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas stops making insulin. So people with type 1 diabetes can eat all they want, making their blood sugar go up, but their cells starve to death despite very high blood sugar because they don’t have insulin to allow the sugar into cells.
What causes Type 2 Diabetes?
In type 2 diabetes, there is a ton of sugar and the pancreas produces a lot of insulin, causing our cells to bring in more than they need. The muscle and liver cells store the sugar as glycogen, and fat cells convert it to fat for storage. Eventually, muscle and liver cells fill up with glycogen and shut down the insulin receptors from the inside. We call this insulin resistance. The pancreas is still making lots of insulin, but the cells pay no attention to it, so the blood sugar goes up. This is diabetes.
What is the difference between Type 1 Diabetes and Type 2 Diabetes?
Essentially, these two diseases are opposites. Type 1 diabetes is when there is not enough insulin, and type 2 diabetes comes from too much insulin.
|Type 1 Diabetes||Type 2 Diabetes|
|Low insulin||High insulin|
|Cells are starving for sugar||Cells have too much sugar|
|People cannot make fat||People make too much fat|
|The liver is depleted of energy||Fatty liver with too much energy|
If they are so different, why are they both called “DIABETES?”
When there is no insulin, or if there is too much but it doesn’t work, the blood sugar rises and spills in the urine. Thus, both types of diabetes have one symptom in common: high blood sugar that can spill in the urine. For this reason, they have the same name, even though they are very different illnesses.
Does the pancreas stop making insulin in type 2 diabetes?
Insulin is made in the pancreas by beta islet cells. The beta islet cells are sensitive to blood sugar, and as the blood sugar goes up, the cells make more insulin. In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas is working well, putting out insulin and glucagon at an amazing rate. I have seen tests of patients with levels of insulin over twenty times higher than normal, all made from their pancreas. As the blood sugar continues to rise, the pancreas makes more insulin. Thus, the pancreas continues to make insulin in type 2 diabetes.
Do people with type 2 diabetes ever need insulin?
In some cases, a person with diabetes may have both insulin resistance and insufficient production from the pancreas. In a sense, they have both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. In these cases, they may need treatments for both. If the pancreas isn’t making enough insulin, it is type 1 diabetes, and, yes, most of them need to inject insulin so they can use glucose for energy. However, they also need dietary controls to improve their sensitivity to insulin.
What kind of diet is best to protect the pancreas?
Insulin resistance and beta cell function improve on a whole-food vegetable-based diet. I hate to use “vegetarian” or “vegan” because those terms mean so many different things to different people. It seems that protection of the beta cells is best achieved by eating a lot of fiber, and keeping the calories (fat, sugar, carbs, and protein) to a minimum. It’s not that one should never eat meat, but rather high-fiber vegetables should be the basis of meals, with little or no meat.
What else can I do to protect my pancreas?
The pancreas needs rest. When people get pancreatitis, either from infection or from getting digested by its own enzymes, the best treatment is rest. That means putting no food into the stomach. A great way to do this is to have an empty stomach at night, having no food or drinks after 6:00 PM. This is especially good because at night the body is set to “shut down” digestion for repair during sleep. It is helpful to be asleep by 10:00 PM to work with your body’s natural circadian rhythm. Also, allowing at least four hours between meals (no snacks) gives the pancreas a rest; it’s a great way to maintain a “practically perfect pancreas.”
Rules for protecting the pancreas and maintaining proper function:
- Eat lots of fiber
- Don’t eat or drink after 6:00 PM
- Allow 4 or more hours between meals
- Don’t eat snacks
- Go to sleep by 10:00 PM