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Pancreas (general health)

General characteristics

General characteristics

The pancreas is a large gland that sits in the abdominal cavity just below/behind the stomach and above the intestines. It is an integral part of the digestive system and its healthy functioning is vital to life. It is connected to the small intestine via a tube called the pancreatic duct.

The pancreas secretes several enzymatic substances termed 'pancreatic juice', which contain enzymes needed for the digestion of proteins, carbohydrates/starches and fats. It also secretes 2 hormones, insulin and glucagon, both vital in the role of carbohydrate metabolism (conversion into usable fuel) and plays a major role in balancing blood sugar levels. A solution containing bicarbonate ions that help neutralise the stomach acid in the small intestine in order for digestion to properly continue is also secreted.

Insulin and its lesser known partner glucagon are vital for maintaining blood sugar balance. Sugar, in the form of glucose, is used as fuel by many cells of the body. They work together intimately in a feedback system. When blood sugar levels are very low the pancreas secretes glucagon which stimulates the release of stored sugars (from the liver, muscle and fat cells) in order to raise blood sugar to a normal level. When blood sugar is very high the pancreas secretes extra insulin which forces the excess blood sugar into the liver cells for storage. When liver cells are full, the insulin directs the excess blood sugar into fat cells. Insulin encourages the storage of sugars and their removal from the blood into cells whereas glucagon encourages the release of sugars from the liver into the blood.

Health problems concerning the pancreas often relate to disorders of blood sugar imbalance (diabetes) but other diseases such as acute or chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) include destruction of the pancreatic cells themselves due to either infection, gallstones blocking the pancreatic duct, reduced blood flow to the pancreas, excessive alcohol intake, poor diet (high in carbohydrates, sugar and starches), some medications, cystic fibrosis or cancer. Signs of pancreatitis include high abdominal pain that often radiated to the back, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and diarhhoea. Fever and general weakness may also be present and jaundice may occur if gallstones are blocking the pancreatic duct.

The healthy functioning of the stomach, liver, spleen, thyroid, adrenal and pituitary glands are also important to the health of the pancreas. Adrenal stress can lead to overproduction of blood cortisol which lowers the amount of glucose entering cells resulting in a rise in blood sugar. The pancreas is forced to secrete more insulin in an attempt to lower blood sugar to safe levels, increasing the risk of diabetes if it carries on unchecked. When the adrenals are exhausted, cortisol levels are reduced and blood sugar becomes low leading to hypoglycaemia.

Diabetes often occurs as a result of long term blood sugar imbalance but also results when the cells producing insulin are destroyed or reduced or when bodily cells do not respond properly to the effects of insulin, leaving blood sugar generally high.

Healing objectives are to nurture the pancreas with enriching foods and to limit refined carbohydrates, simple sugars and starches to avoid the constant blood sugar roller-coaster of highs and lows. Reduce stress wherever possible and support the adrenal glands with appropriate herbs such as siberian ginseng and ashwaganda. Correct any other imbalance in the body wherever possible such as the thyroid, digestive organs, hormone imbalance, stomach acid levels etc.


Diet and lifestyle

Diet and lifestyle

To maintain a healthy pancreas or to help heal a diseased or malfunctioning pancreas it is vital to be aware of your carbohydrate, starch and simple sugar intake. As mentioned, excessive amounts of carbohydrates, starches and sweet foods have a dramatic over working effect on the health of the pancreas as it struggles to maintain balanced blood sugar levels. The worst culprits are refined wheat and corn as in breads, cakes, biscuits, crackers, pastries, sweets, crisps, flatbreads, fruit juices and anything with added sugar in it.

Avoid anything containing fructose as a sweetener, especially high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as it is seriously detrimental to the liver and pancreas.

Avoid foods containing hydrogenated and trans fats as these are particularly bad for the pancreas. They hide in many processed foods so check labels carefully.

Any foods that are high in anti-oxidants will help to protect the pancreas from ill health. These include the berry fruits (especially bilberries and blueberries), dark green leaves, green tea and turmeric.

Instead eat more protein and good fats such as fish, organic dairy, root vegetables, all berry fruits, apples, carrots, beetroot, squashes and pumpkins, beans and legumes, green leaves, broccoli, nuts and seeds, onions and garlic, wholegrains such as spelt, oats, millet, quinoa etc.

Sweet tasting root vegetables such as carrot, parsnips, jerusalem artichokes, beetroot, swede, sweet potatoes and yams help to nurture and support the pancreas.

Edible seaweeds seem to have a beneficial effect on the pancreas so include a sprinkle in your meals occasionally.

Foods that contain natural enzymes such as pineapple and papaya can help the digestive process and take some strain off the pancreas when it is below par such as in pancreatitis.

Use the culinary herbs and spices such as turmeric, garlic, ginger, chilli, mustard, horseradish, coriander, fennel, parsley, black pepper and the like liberally as they all assist with the digestive process as well as having many other health benefits.

Bitter foods such as chicory, artichoke, olives will help to encourage efficient digestive secretions from the pancreas and entire digestive tract.

If you cannot live without your bread go for real wholemeal, sourdough, multigrain or rye breads.

Your pancreas secretes digestive enzymes in response to everything ingested (food or drink) in its role as a digestive organ. Eating and drinking constantly throughout the day can diminish the effectiveness of the digestive juices so try and eat meals regularly throughout the day and try not to snack on rich or sweet foods/drinks too often. An apple or some nuts would be a better choice than a bar or chocolate or packet of crisps and will not cause a blood sugar spike and subsequent insulin surge.

Do not skip meals or fast if your pancreas is unwell. Irregular and erratic eating times will harm the pancreas if the habits become long term. Crash dieting has a similar detrimental effect.

Do not drink large amounts of water with meals.

Avoid all alcohol if your pancreas is unwell. Excessive binge drinking and chronic long term alcohol intake is especially harmful to the pancreas.

Avoid smoking.


Useful herbs

Useful herbs

The adaptogenic herbs such as siberian ginseng, medicinal mushrooms such as reishi and ashwagandha can help to support the adrenals in times of stress and encourage them to work more efficiently. This in turn can have a positive effect on blood sugar balancing. Take in tincture, dried herb or capsulated form.

The bitter herbs such as barberry, gentian, burdock root, dandelion root, holy thistle, centaury, blue flag, artichoke leaf, wild yam and golden seal can help to correct any problems with digestion and perk up the pancreas. Mix equal parts of 4 or 5 of your chosen tinctures (except goldenseal) and take a teaspoon in a little water with meals. Add a few drops (2-3) of goldenseal tincture to each glass.

A few drops of blue flag tincture in water up to 3 times daily can also help heal an inflamed pancreas.

Dandelion root has a particular affinity with the pancreas and can be taken alone for positive effects. Use a teaspoon of dried root and simmer gently in a mugful of water for 15 minutes. Drink the strained fluid. Do this up to 3 times daily. You can also powder the root in a blender and take between half and 1 level teaspoon in some liquid up to 3 times daily.

Fenugreek seeds have been shown to balance blood sugar levels and lower the amounts of harmful fats in the blood. Crush a few seeds and add to teas.

A cup of strong chamomile tea (2 teaspoons per cup) can help to relieve the pain of pancreatitis.

Add a generous pinch of chilli/cayenne to herbal teas etc for its blood sugar stabillisng actions and positive actions on the pancreas.

Liqourice root is very soothing to the pancreas and is also anti-inflammatory. Take 2ml of tincture in a little water up to 3 times daily. Only use for a week or so at a time and do not use with high blood pressure.

A daily nutrient tonic tea could consist of nettle, alfalfa, raspberry leaf and oatstraw. Use equal parts of each, a heaped teaspoon of the mix per cup, up to 3 cups daily or as a 'pick me up' energy boost between meals. Occasionally add an equal portion of mullein leaf, bearberry (uva ursi), burdock leaves or horsetail to the mix for added benefits.

Add a pinch of turmeric powder to your herbal teas to benefit from its potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. Be careful with turmeric if you know you have gallbladder obstruction or gallstones.

Take a teaspoon of echinacea tincture up to 5 times daily to help fight any infection that may be present in pancreatitis.

Occasional use of cascara bark can help to stimulate all digestive secretions, including that of the pancreas.

Celery seeds have a positive and cleansing action on the pancreas and help to keep blood sugar levels stable in normal circumstances as do fennel seeds.


Natural healing

Natural healing

Castor oil packs can help to soothe the pain of pancreatitis when placed over the upper left abdomen. Soak a cloth in castor oil, place over the abdomen and put a hot water bottle over to keep it warm and increase the effect.


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