Your pancreas is an organ that is tucked in behind your stomach. It helps out with digestion, but in this lesson you will learn about the two hormones it produces named insulin and glucagon and how they keep your blood sugar level balanced.

Your Pancreas

Deep inside your body is a 6-inch-long, triangle-shaped pancake that helps to keep your blood sugar under control. Wait. . . that can’t be right. Oops, sorry about that. Let me start over. Deep inside your body is a 6-inch-long, triangle-shaped organ that is flat, like a pancake. It’s called your pancreas, and it secretes hormones that help to balance blood sugar levels. Okay, that’s more like it.

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This organ is squeezed into a little area right behind your stomach. If you put your hand over your belly, just below your ribs, then you have an idea of where your pancreas is located. Your pancreas is nestled in around your stomach and intestines because it plays an important role in digesting your food, but that’s a story for another day, because in this lesson, we will talk about its function in the endocrine system – you know, the system that sends out chemical messengers, called hormones, that keep your body in balance and tell it when to do things, like grow and develop.

When we are talking about hormones that come out of the pancreas, we are talking about two really important ones, insulin and glucagon. It’s interesting that these hormones come from the same parent organ, meaning the pancreas, because they are complete opposites. It would be like having a brother or sister who does everything different than you. If you turn the volume down on the TV, your sibling turns the volume up. It’s enough to drive you crazy. Well, that’s the same relationship we see with insulin and glucagon because one makes the amount of sugar in your blood go down, while the other makes it go up. Even though it seems like they are always fighting with each other, in the end, their constant adjustments work out, which allows you to maintain your blood sugar at a healthy level.

Insulin

Now, you might be wondering why it’s so important to keep your blood sugar level steady. That’s a good question. You see, sugar, which is also called glucose, is the fuel your body cells like to use for energy.

If you have too little sugar in your blood, then there is not enough to feed your cells, leaving you feeling shaky and moody and really tired. You might have felt this way after a day of not eating anything. If you eat a lot of food, like a double stack of pancakes with maple syrup, then you are going to flood your blood with sugar and probably not feel too good until that extra sugar gets moved out of your blood. To do this, your body calls on your pancreas to make insulin. Insulin is the hormone that lowers blood sugar levels. It does this by moving extra sugar out of your blood and putting it into your body cells. So, it’s insulin’s job to open up the door of your cells and let sugar in. It’s almost as if insulin knows the ‘secret knock’ that opens the door of your cells. Without insulin’s ‘secret knock,’ sugar can’t get in.

Glucagon

Insulin is produced inside little islands of endocrine tissue within your pancreas called the pancreatic islets. The word islets actually means ‘island.’ We also see that the other hormone, glucagon, is produced in the pancreatic islets. So, I guess you could say that these feuding siblings have to share a room within your pancreas.

Because we know that glucagon does the exact opposite of insulin, it’s easy to see that glucagon is the hormone that raises blood sugar levels. So with glucagon, blood sugar grows. It does this by telling the liver to break down its storage of glucose and dump it into the blood. So, if you haven’t eaten all day, and your blood sugar level is dropping, then it’s glucagon to the rescue. This grows the amount of sugar in your blood giving you the energy to get through your day.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Located behind your stomach is a 6-inch-long organ called the pancreas that secretes hormones that help to balance blood sugar levels.

If your blood sugar is out of balance, your body tells the little islands of endocrine tissue within the pancreas – called the pancreatic islets – to make the right hormone and restore the normal level.

If your blood sugar level is too high – say after eating a double stack of pancakes – then your pancreas produces insulin, which is the hormone that lowers blood sugar levels. It can do this because it knows the ‘secret knock’ that opens the door on your body cells allowing extra sugar to move out of your blood and into the cells.

If your blood sugar level is too low – say after a day of not eating – then your pancreas produces glucagon, which is the hormone that raises blood sugar levels. So with glucagon, blood sugar grows.

Learning Outcomes

Viewing and studying this lesson’s material can prepare you to:

  • State the role and location of the pancreas
  • Remember that your pancreas increases and decreases your body’s blood sugar level through the production of insulin and glucagon