Today I wanted to introduce you all to the pancreas. It is another organ which is under appreciated yet it is implicated in the massive pandemic we are experiencing globally with the rise of type 2 diabetes. When we eat food it passed though our food pipe (oesophagus) and enters the stomach where is it broken down by hydrochloric acid into smaller bits (we call this chyme). Digestion continues in the small and large intestines but as you learnt last week the ability to digest fats is determined by the liver and gallbladder.
The pancreas is another essential organ for us to be able to access the nutrients in our food. It is also a hormone gland and creates several hormones which are essential to how we metabolise food. Insulin is now well known as a hormone because of its role in diabetes and blood sugar levels. It also produces several enzymes which are essential to the digestion of our food. Enzymes help to speed up the biochemical processes – your wash powder utilises enzymes to clean your clothes in the washing machine. They work like a lock and key attaching to particles, altering them (depending on the function of the enzyme) and then releasing them and going on to the next one. If our pancreas isn’t producing enough digestive enzymes the time it takes to digest our food slows and we may feel sluggish.
Every day the pancreas produces roughly a litre and a half of pancreatic juice – this is a clear colourless liquid which contains water, salt, sodium bicarbonate and numerous digestive enzymes. Yes we have bicarbonate of soda in our cooking cupboards (great for baking cakes), its use in the digestive system in as an alkaline buffer to prevent internal damage from the stomach acid in the chyme (food after it has been processed in the stomach). The bicarb also creates the proper pH so that the digestive enzymes can work more effectively in the intestines.
It is only a small portion of the pancreas which acts as a hormonal gland, as well as insulin,the hormone glucagon (another hormone which has a role to play in sugar metabolism by keeling blood sugars high enough for us to function), somatostatin (a hormone which regulates several other hormone within the body – in the case of the pancreas it works to keep the levels of glucagon and insulin in check. The somatostatin acts like a feedback loop in the pancreas; remember that almost all biologic processes have a built-in “off switch” like this. ) and pancreatic polypeptide (which also influences our digestive function preventing pancreatic enzymes from being secreted into the gut after a protein meal, fasting and exercise.). Finally, a few epsilon cells contain the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates our hunger and very often causes us to eat like a bear in a stream of salmon.
It is the collaboration of all our digestive organs that enables us to access the nutrients in our food. We may eat a healthy diet and even take supplements but our ability to access there nutrients can be affected in several different ways – the first is not having the right tools to aid digestion. This includes bile to digest fats, having enough enzymes to complete the process of digestion and the secretion of the right levels of hormones. If there is inflammation within the digestive tract our ability to absorb the nutrients is reduced. Not having enough ‘friendly’ bacteria in our large intestine prevents several nutrients from being digested (those which cannot be accessed in the small intestine). We rely on bacteria in our large intestine to continue to break down our food so that we can then absorb several nutrients which are essential to our health. Fibre is essential for our digestion and so is the pH of our digestive system otherwise it will not function effectively.
When you look at each of our organs and realise their importance – the sum of each of these individual ‘parts’ far outweighs the whole! Each of us are unique, the key to good health and wellbeing is to understand your body and listen to it. Every part of us are made of cells – every one of them communicate, breath, eat and poop – just on a smaller scale. Just like at work when someone is slacking, the extra workload can be taken up… but not for log periods as that’s when things go wrong. It is true that we should treat our bodies like a temple as every cell is working tirelessly to make us who we are.
Anyway… enough digressing, I will get back to what I wanted to share with you all. Some people have what is called type 1 diabetes, this is where their body, their pancreas doesn’t produce insulin and they are insulin dependant. This generally occurs early on in life. But the rise in type 2 diabetes – a disorder where our bodies are becoming resistant to the insulin that is produced generally occurs later on in life due to our actions and decisions in life when it comes down to our diet and lifestyle. This is a condition which is dependant on the pancreas (as well as numerous other organs, tissues and cells within the body. It is seen as a lifestyle disorder and therefore by looking after ourselves and caring for our body we can improve and even reverse this. If you experience type 2 diabetes why not consider seeing a herbalist? We can support you with your self care by advising on healthy dietary and lifestyle changes as well as support your health with herbal medicine. Obesity is the major risk factor in decreasing insulin’s effectiveness, and the rise of obesity is the major reason we’ve recently seen diabetes levels skyrocket. There are many problems associated with diabetes, including frequent urination, fatigue, impotence, nerve dysfunction, accelerated arterial aging and even the development of vision problems that can cause blindness.
Pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas is inflamed, usually caused by toxins, like alcohol, a virus or a blocked duct, draining from the pancreas. The good news is that the problem is averted by avoiding the toxin that may have irritated this sensitive organ or the gallstones that block the duct—overusing caffeine and alcohol are possible culprits. The toughest part about this condition is severe pain. Pancreatitis is caused by a malfunction of the digestive process in which the digestive juices spill back into the pancreas and then into the abdominal cavity and dissolve tissue. That tissue is located right above a big set of nerve cells called the celiac plexus, so it’s an unbearable kind of back throbbing—some of the worst pain people can experience.
Look at your diet and see if you eat the following foods on a regular basis:
- Fish, eggs, and poultry.
- D-fortified cereals and dairy.
- Onions (which contain special cancer-clubbing flavonoids, they are tasty, gourmet-style crunch to food, are a great addition to most sauces and also fill you up with potent nutrients thought to help thwart pancreatic cancer)
- Foods high in flavonoids include: kale, Swiss chard, endive, raw spinach, chives and white beans. Asparagus, apples, buckwheat and tea. Fennel, blueberries, cranberries and carob flour
Be aware that if you have milk in your tea then you are rendering a lot of the flavonoids inert as the tannins in tea bind with the protein in milk.
Do you smoke? Take heart in the fact that the smokers in the study were particularly benefited by high flavonol intake, with kaempferol providing the most protection. That said, smoking still raises your risk of poor pancreatic health and it is always best to look at quitting.
When you exercise the pancreas releases the glucagon hormone, when you have burnt off the stores glucose (sugar) in your muscles and liver this hormone forces you to convert your fat reserves into glucose to be able to continue fueling the exercise that you are doing – so it helps you to break down fat when you have an active lifestyle.
You are aware that the pancreas produces insulin but are you aware of the role that this hormone has on the body? Insulin helps the body store and use glucose, it is responsible for delivering that glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream into muscle, fat, liver and most other cells so that your body can use it for fuel. Problems happen when either the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin or various parts of the body block insulin and prevent it from delivering glucose to those cells.
If when you go to the toilet and your poo floats (called steatorrhea) then your body is having a problem digestive fat and may be putting strain on your pancreas.
The following can be harmful to the pancreas, the foods should only be eaten in moderation and the lifestyle issues and emotions should be assessed and resolved:
- Animal fats, especially cow’s milk and red meat are harmful to the health of the pancreas. Also refined products, sausages and fried.
- Foods with added chemicals (such as preservatives, colorings, additives, etc.), and refined products (sugar, flour, etc.) block many vital body functions, and damage the functions of the pancreas.
- Drinking alcohol
- Anger, frustration and disappointment are emotions that influence the malfunction of the pancreas.
Helpful herbal remedies in strengthening and stimulating your pancreatic function include gentian, goldenseal, echinacea and cedar berries. Dandelion and olive leaf may also help treat your pancreatitis or improve your pancreatic health. Licorice root has been used to support all glandular functions, including the functions of your pancreas. Turmeric is an excellent anti-inflammatory herbal medicine which can be easily added to your diet and will benefit the pancreas.
Dandelion root may be a helpful adjunct therapy in the treatment of your pancreatic problems and may support the health and function of your pancreas. Dandelion root may help stimulate bile production and helps cleanse your blood and liver, which in turn decreases the burden on your pancreas. Other organs that may benefit from the use of this herbal medicine include your kidneys, spleen and stomach. Why not dig up the roots, when they are dried and roasted they may an excellent substitute to coffee with no caffeine and all of the health benefits?