I am the second oldest of the seven Weston children. We were raised in a home where there was no smoking or drinking. My mom was an avowed “health nut” and fed us only the best—mostly fresh vegetables and fruit. In spite of all the wholesome living and tender care, one of my sisters and one of my bothers are type 1 diabetic. I love them so much and it has been hard for this big brother to watch them suffer and have to alter their lives, testing their blood and injecting insulin multiple times a day. My little sister has even had to undergo a lifesaving kidney transplant, and now has to look forward to taking anti-rejection medication for life; all because their pancreas is broken.
I’m not going to overwhelm or bore you with the embryology, histology, anatomy, neurology, physiology, and specific circulatory details of the pancreas. Generally the pancreas is a three to four inch glandular organ located in the left side of the abdomen just behind and below the stomach and gall bladder. It performs dual functions that are essential to your health. First, it is an exocrine gland that secretes enzymes that are necessary for the digestion of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates so they can be assimilated in the small intestine. Second, the pancreas is an endocrine gland which creates insulin that transports glucose into your cells and then stores them as extra fuel for future energy needs. You can live without a pancreas, but would be sentenced to taking insulin and pancreatic enzymes for the rest of your life.
There are several conditions that are damaging to the pancreas and thus detrimental to health. An inflammation called pancreatitis is potentially extremely dangerous. The most common cause is gall stones, followed by alcoholism, certain medications, and then infections from an array of different microbes. Digestive enzymes may attack their own pancreas instead of being released into the small intestine. Common symptoms are extreme upper left quadrant pain, jaundice, and unexplained weight loss, which if not cared for quickly can develop into diabetes or cancer. Pancreatic cancer has many of the same symptoms, and by the time it is diagnosed has often spread to other systems in the body, making it one of the most lethal of all cancers.
Type 1 diabetes usually occurs in a person under 25 years of age, hence the alternate name of juvenile onset or insulin dependent diabetes because the pancreas stops producing and secreting insulin. It is an autoimmune disease that usually has a sudden onset, and really has nothing to do with diet or lifestyle and therefore cannot be prevented. The patient will have to take insulin the rest of their life. The only hope for an actual cure is a new pancreas, a transplant pancreas, which has already shown great promise.
Type 2 Diabetes most commonly occurs in those that are over 35 years of age and have developed an insulin resistance. It is often called Adult Onset and accounts for approximately 90% of all diabetes cases. It can come on gradually, and sometimes may not be noticed at all until it is very advanced. There is a familial or genetic pre-disposition, however, diet and lifestyle are the major contributors to this malady. Sadly type 2 is increasing in frequency due to common contributing factors such as being overweight (especially belly fat), sedentary lifestyle, high cholesterol and triglycerides, elevated blood pressure, high intake of animal protein, and the demon of smoking.
Generally, diabetes is defined by a fasting blood sugar level above 126 mg, and a level above 200 mg at the second hour of an oral glucose tolerance test. Complications are numerous and serious, ranging among vision disturbances, heart disease, circulatory problems, nerve pains, and numbness in the extremities. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness, end stage kidney disease, lower limb amputations, and dementia. This is some serious stuff.
There are several other types of diabetes. Gestational diabetes is due to the increased production of hormones that decrease the body’s ability to utilize insulin. It is usually temporary and resolves after the pregnancy, but in a small percentage of the cases can develop into type 2. Certain medications, especially steroids, can drive your blood sugar higher. Among several other subtypes there is even a type 1.5 which is a variation between type 1 and 2.
Pancreas problems and particularly diabetes are not something you should ignore or even procrastinate checking up on. A combination of some of the following signs and symptoms add up to a huge flashing Warning Sign that demand immediate attention: increased thirst and appetite yet with unexplained weight loss, also frequent urination, sudden vision changes, lethargy or drowsiness, labored breathing, a fruity odor on breath, and in more severe cases, stupor or even unconsciousness. It’s easy to understand the tongue-in-cheek t-shirt messages I’ve seen that say, “I Want Your Pancreas,” and “If Your Pancreas Works – Quit whining.”