The pancreas has two major roles in the body. It produces hormones such as insulin and produces digestive enzymes. The role of the pancreas in the digestive system is to secrete enzymes into the small intestine. Most of the tissue in the organ is digestive, or exocrine, tissue. The enzymes secreted by the pancreas in the digestive system help break food down even further. Food never passes through the pancreas itself in the process of digestion.
As the pancreas serves two roles in the body, it is made up of two different types of tissue. The exocrine tissue, or acini, makes up 95 percent of the organ. Endocrine tissue, or islets of Langerhans, makes up the remainder of the organ. Islets produce the hormones insulin, glucagon, and somatostatin, which regulate sugar levels in the bloodstream.
The pancreas in the digestive system is responsible for producing an average of 1 liter (2 pints) of digestive enzymes each day. Enzymes are released when food enters the upper portion of the small intestine, the duodenum. The enzyme mixture is alkaline and contains a large amount of sodium bicarbonate to help neutralize the acid from the stomach.
Typically, the enzyme mixture produced by the pancreas in the digestive system contains four enzymes. Each enzyme breaks down a different nutrient in food so that it can easily pass through the digestive tract. Amylase breaks down carbohydrates, while lipase breaks fat down into cholesterol and fatty acids. Two enzymes, trypsin and chymotrypsin, are responsible for breaking down proteins.
The role of the pancreas in the digestive system is an important one. If the organ fails to produce enough enzymes to properly break foods down as they travel through the intestine, a person may lose weight or experience stomach upset. When there are not enough digestive enzymes produced, the body is unable to absorb nutrients from food, leading to malnutrition and weight loss. Some people experience diarrhea because food does not move through the digestive system properly.
Other problems, such as pancreatitis, can negatively affect the organ's role in the digestive system. When a person has pancreatitis, the blockage prevents the organ from releasing enzymes. The blockage can be a gallstone or a tumor. Digestive enzymes instead collect in the pancreas, in some cases causing permanent damage to the organ. Surgery may be needed to remove the blockage and treat the condition.