Pancreas Health - 3 Tips to Better Digestion and Blood Sugar Control

Pancreas health highlights:

Function - The pancreas serves 2 functions:

  • Digestive (exocrine) function
  • Blood sugar (endocrine) function

When Things Go Wrong - Signs & symptoms you may need support:

  • Digestive: abdominal cramping, bloating, gas, incomplete digestion
  • Blood sugar: blood sugar swings, weight loss/gain, diabetes, high blood sugar levels

Supporting the Pancreas:

  • Digestive: pancreatic enzymes, HCl and relaxation
  • Blood sugar: elimination of refined, processed foods and inclusion of protein and fat at each meal


Def. Pancreas: 

A digestive hormone- and enzyme-producing powerhouse. This 8”-12” fleshy gland is tucked behind the stomach and sits atop the duodenum (first portion) of the small intestine.


Digestive Function

Pancreas Health - 3 Tips for Better Digestion and Blood Sugar Control
Pancreas Health - 3 Tips for Better Digestion and Blood Sugar Control

Def. exocrine: A gland which secrete substances (e.g. enzymes) through a duct into another organ

The pancreas secretes 4 digestive enzymes into the first few inches of the duodenum of the small intestine to decrease acidity and break down protein, carbohydrate and fat – bicarbonate, pancreatic protease, pancreatic amylase and pancreatic lipase.

Remember, the chyme (digested food) leaving the stomach and entering the small intestine is very acidic. In the presence of undigested fat and protein in the duodenum of the small intestine, the hormone cholecystokinin and secretin are produced in the duodenum of the small intestine.

Cholecystokinin and secretin signal the release of the following pancreatic enzymes:

  • Bicarbonate – An alkaline fluid (pH of +/- 8) secreted in the duodenum of the small intestine. When chyme (broken down food +stomach acid) arrives in the small intestine, it’s very acidic (pH of 2). It’s been churning and lathered in battery acid-like levels of stomach acid. For pancreatic digestive enzymes to be effective, the small intestine requires an alkaline environment (higher pH). Bicarbonate neutralizes the acidic chyme to enable digestive enzymes to function.
  • Pancreatic Amylase – Breaks down long chain carbohydrates polysaccharides into two-chain sugar saccharides starches into disaccharides.
  • Pancreatic Lipase – Breaks down dietary fat triglycerides into monoglycerides and fatty acids.
  • Pancreatic Protease (trypsin, chymotrypsin) – Breaks down long chain proteins polypeptides into smaller chains called peptides.


Blood Sugar Function

Def. endocrine: A gland which secretes substances hormones directly into the bloodstream

The pancreas secretes 2 hormones into the blood to regulate blood sugar – insulin and glucagon.

  • Insulin – A hormone secreted from the beta cells of the pancreas in response to a rise in blood glucose. Insulin holds the hand of glucose, and then knocks on the door of the cell and shuttles glucose into the cell to provide energy. Insulin assists in shuttling glucose into cells in order to lower blood sugar.
  • Glucagon – A hormone secreted from the alpha cells of the pancreas in response to low blood sugar from exercise, hunger, protein-rich meal or a drop in blood sugar. Glucagon instructs the liver to break down glycogen in order to raise blood sugar.

The pancreas secretes 1 hormone to regulate appetite – somatostatin.

  • Somatostatin – A hormone secreted from the delta cell of the pancreas when a certain level of nutrients are reached in the blood stream. Somatostatin slows down digestion and decreases stomach emptying and HCl production.
Pancreas Health - 3 Tips for Better Digestion and Blood Sugar Control
Pancreas Health - 3 Tips for Better Digestion and Blood Sugar Control

When Things Go Wrong:

Signs & Symptoms you may need digestive support:

  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Cramps
  • Bloating, indigestion
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea, constipation, undigested food in stools
  • Steatorrhea – pale, tan-colored stools
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Aging
Pancreas Health - 3 Tips for Better Digestion and Blood Sugar Control
Pancreas Health - 3 Tips for Better Digestion and Blood Sugar Control

Signs & Symptoms you may need blood sugar support:

  • Diabetes
  • Blood sugar swings
  • Blurred vision
  • Increased thirst
  • Weight loss/gain


Supporting the Pancreas:

Supporting digestive function:

  • Pancreatic enzymes: In working with a nutritionist or practitioner, try animal- or plant-based pancreatic enzymes to support breakdown of protein, carbohydrates and fat in the small intestine
  • Betaine HCl: Try HCl or HCl with digestive enzymes to break down protein in the stomach, thereby providing a bit of relief and not overtaxing enzyme production in the pancreas
  • Chew your food in peace: Rest to digest. And chew your food. A lot. Resting spurs the vagus nerve to release digestive enzymes. Chewing is the first line of defense in food breakdown, and sets the stage for how hard your stomach and pancreas will need to work to break down the food.

Support upstream stomach health: Remember, nothing in the body works in isolation. Support stomach digestion, too!


Supporting blood sugar function:

  • Eliminate refined, processed foods: Reducing highly refined, carbohydrate-rich foods regulates insulin production and sensitivity
  • Eat protein and fat at each meal: These two macronutrients are highly satiating and difficult to overeat, and also increase insulin sensitivity.
  • Nutrients and herbs: You cannot supplement out of a bad diet, but you can boost insulin sensitivity and improve glucose control with nutrients like zinc, chromium, selenium, alpha lipoic acid and B vitamins.

The pancreas is both a powerhouse and middleman. It’s given the hand of what’s been chewed up and digested, and also given a dose of glucose, or lack thereof, and must produce insulin or glucagon to level out blood sugar.

Whew, what a job – let’s be nice to it!