Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Viscera: Pancreas

(Learn more about the organs of the human bodies in other posts in the Viscera series here:

The pancreas is probably the most central organ in the human body. It is situated just under the liver and stomach, surrounded by the duodenum (first part of small intestine) and lies in front of the aorta. It is shaped like a fish and thus is divided into parts named the head, neck, body and tail. The head of the pancreas tucks into the loop of duodenum and drains its contents via the pancreatic duct, which joins with the common bile duct (from the liver and gallbladder).


The function of the pancreas is divided into two functions: exocrine and endocrine.

An exocrine gland is an organ that excretes its products out of the body (including the intestines), such as the salivary or tear glands. The exocrine function of the pancreas is the production and secretion of digestive enzymes that break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates in the small intestine. Because of this, injury to the pancreas often causes a leak of this digestive juice, causing the body to self-digest the pancreas (leading to pancreatitis) and surrounding organs.

An endocrine gland is the opposite in that it secretes its contents into the bloodstream. These glands typically produce hormones, such as the thyroid, ovaries and adrenal glands. The pancreas’ endocrine function is related to an extremely common yet deadly disease: diabetes. Within the pancreas, there are millions of cells that cluster into groups called islets of Langerhans. There are various types of cells, but the most common are the alpha-islet cells that secrete glucagon and beta-islet cells that secrete insulin. Insulin acts to lower blood sugar (glucose) levels by promoting storage and use of glucose after a meal. Glucagon acts to increase blood glucose by promoting the breakdown of glucose storage units (glycogen) and the production of more glucose by the liver. Diabetes occurs when beta-islet cells fail to produce insulin because they are destroyed by the immune system (type 1 diabetes mellitus) or become desensitised by chronically elevated blood glucose levels (type 2 diabetes mellitus).

Another important disease concerning the pancreas is pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is notorious for its deadliness as it carries a 5-year mortality rate of over 95%. This is because it usually remains hidden – without any symptoms – until it as grown substantially and spread to other organs. However, this prognosis only applies to the most common type of pancreatic cancer involving exocrine cells (adenocarcinoma). There are far rarer cancers of the pancreas that involve the endocrine cells (e.g. insulinoma), which tend to have extremely good prognoses and are usually curable.

Steve Jobs (founder of Apple Inc.) had this kind of pancreatic cancer – an islet cell neuroendocrine tumour. Despite his excellent chance of cure with chemotherapy and surgery, he refused treatment for nine months and instead relied on alternative medicine for cure. However, his disease worsened and he finally resorted to having surgery. By this stage, his disease had spread to the liver due to the nine-month delay in treatment. Spreading of cancer is called metastasis and is often an indication that the cancer is no longer curable. Jobs went against his doctors’ advice and opted for a liver transplant in the hopes of curing his cancer. Organ transplant involves suppressing the patient’s immune system (which also keeps cancers in check) to prevent rejection of the donor organ, which is why oncologists advise against transplants in cancer patients. Jobs’ condition deteriorated quickly after his liver transplant and his decisions ultimately led to his demise.


Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Despite the implied disgusting nature (especially smell) of urine, it is one of the most important types of “samples” used in medicine for diagnostic purposes. Like blood, urine can tell a lot about a person’s health and whether they have a certain disease or not.

One of the earliest recorded uses of urine as a medical test was for the detection of diabetes mellitus. People noticed that the urine of a diabetic would often smell quite sweet, and also taste sweet (it is uncertain how they came to test urine this way). This is because a diabetic has too much glucose (sugar) in their blood, causing it to spill over into the urine as the kidneys become saturated. In fact, the words diabetes mellitus stand for “passing through” (referring to the symptom of frequent urination) and “honey-sweet”. A completely unrelated disease called diabetes insipidus also causes frequent urination, but the urine does not taste sweet, hence “insipidus” (tasteless). This type of etymology is also seen in countries like Korea, China and Japan, where the word 당뇨(糖尿) literally stands for “sugar urine”. Although we no longer taste urine, it is still used to gauge the severity of diabetes by measuring the amount of protein in the urine (due to kidney damage).

There are many other tests one can do with urine to check for certain diseases. The chemical composition of urine tells us about the hydration status of a person, while giving away clues to diseases that cause electrolyte imbalance. It also gives some indication of how well the kidneys can do their job of concentrating urine. Certain markers such as white blood cells and bacteria in the urine can indicate a urinary tract infection. Antibodies in the urine can point towards a certain type of bacteria as the cause of a patient’s pneumonia, or whether a woman is pregnant (βhCG). Looking for proteins or sediments in the urine can be diagnostic of certain kidney diseases such as glomerulonephritis. Even rare diseases such as phaeochromocytomas can be diagnosed from the level of catecholamines in the urine (this is slightly too complex for our scopes).

A more interesting part of urinalysis is looking at the colour of the urine. Urine is usually a yellow colour, ranging in darkness depending on the concentration of urine. But when there are other things in the urine, the colour changes. Reddish urine suggests blood (which is not an indicator of kidney failure as TV shows say), which can be caused by trauma, UTIs, kidney stones or some other disease. Brown urine could be due to muscle breakdown somewhere in the body. Urine can appear very dark if the person has an illness called obstructive jaundice. Eating beetroots can cause your urine to turn bright red, while medications can change your urine colour from anywhere from red to orange to green. Murky or cloudy urine (with an offensive smell) may suggest a UTI.

Perhaps the most interesting urine colour known in medicine is purple. This unique colour is produced in a rare genetic disease called acute intermittent porphyria. If urine is collected from a patient suffering an attack of AIP (causes crippling abdominal pain) then left in the sun or under a UV light, it will turn purple due to certain proteins. Because of this, urine collected to test for AIP is wrapped in tinfoil before sending to the lab (where the chemicals are measured) to limit light exposure.

(Also read the article on how different colours of skin can be of diagnostic importance:

Posted in Science & Nature


In the children’s story Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the protagonist is found trying out various porridges, chairs and beds until she finds the one that is just right for her. Because of this, the name “Goldilocks” has become a symbol for something that is “just right”. A Goldilocks economy is one where there is high growth but no inflation; a Goldilocks planet is one which is not too hot or too cold, making it an ideal planet for life; the Goldilocks effect is when success is achieved because something was not too great or too little.

The Goldilocks effect is a law of nature that is far more important than you would think. Nature always seeks consistency, as shown in the human body. For something as complex as life to exist, a cell must maintain its internal environment in a perfect, ideal state. French physiologist Claude Bernard observed that a cell’s internal environment does not change even with changes in the external environment, and commented that “The stability of the internal environment is the condition for the free and independent life”. This is the basis for homeostasis. Without homeostasis, life cannot exist and all living things put in all their effort in keeping homeostasis. Our body constantly strives to keep various factors such as pulse, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, temperature, blood glucose, electrolytes and numerous hormones etcetera in a stable range. One could possibly argue that the meaning of life is “to maintain homeostasis” – a rather cyclical argument.

To understand the importance of homeostasis, let us look at how changes in the external environment affect us. Our core temperature is maintained in a tight range around 36.5 degrees. If it is altered even a couple of degrees, we exhibit symptoms of hypothermia or hyperthermia. If the weather is too hot, we sweat to cool ourselves; if the weather is too cold, we shiver to raise our temperature. After a meal, we secrete insulin to lower our blood glucose, while we secrete glucagon when starving to raise our blood glucose. Failure of either system leads to either diabetes or hypoglycaemic shock respectively. Homeostasis is an extremely complicated and intricate self-repair system that cannot be imitated.

The Goldilocks effect can be applied beyond physiology to our lives. Everything in moderation; to go beyond is as wrong as to fall short. If we have too little money, it is a problem. If we have too much money, it causes other problems. Whether we work or play, doing too much or too little of either can be bad for us. Medicines become poison in excess and even love in excess becomes obsession. In the marathon that is life, if you run too fast you end up collapsing from exhaustion, while running too slow will mean you never get anywhere.

The secret to happiness lies in understanding what is “just right”.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Diabetes is a common and serious disease that is caused by the body being unable to control the blood sugar (glucose) level, leading to severe organ damage. For example, blood vessel damage can lead to blindness, renal failure, heart attacks or strokes. Diabetes is divided into Type 1, caused by the destruction of pancreatic β-cells (that produces insulin) leading to insulin deficiency, and Type 2 diabetes, where insulin resistance renders the hormone useless. Thus, diabetes is a disease related to insulin. So what is insulin?

Insulin is a hormone that lowers blood glucose. It has the important function of controlling blood glucose levels after a meal. Therefore, a diabetes patient has high blood glucose, which has a toxic effect.
As type 1 diabetics cannot produce insulin, they require daily insulin injections. Some type 2 patients also need insulin. But this hormone that saves the lives of diabetics also has a deadly dark side.

Too much insulin leads to hypoglycaemia due to its blood glucose lowering properties. This is the opposite of what happens in diabetes, but is even more dangerous. Although there are in-built autonomic defence mechanisms to prevent this from happening, a high level of insulin can overcome this to cause blood glucose to plummet. 
A hypoglycaemic patient initially suffers cognitive dysfunction, then sweating and tremors. As blood glucose falls further, the patient begins to convulse, until they fall into a coma and eventually die. This is because the brain heavily relies on glucose for its functions, and a disruption of glucose supply causes it to shut down.
Because blood glucose fluctuates much like blood pressure, it is hard to control. This leads to many diabetics accidentally falling into hypoglycaemia, or even losing their lives. Furthermore, insulin is sometimes used by people to cause hypoglycaemia as a means of suicide.

If you see a person convulsing, check around for any hypodermic needles or bottles of insulin. A diabetic patient would have a medic alert bracelet, and if it is a suicide attempt they would have recently injected themselves with insulin. If you think it is hypoglycaemia, you must immediately treat the patient as severe complications can occur in a very short time. The emergency treatment is quite simple – raise the blood glucose. For example, dissolving a spoon of white sugar in the patient’s mouth or making them drink a sugary drink such as apple juice can cause a spike in blood glucose, causing the symptoms to disappear. If their consciousness does not return, you may need to repeat the process until their blood glucose is high enough.

Knowing even a little about insulin and hypoglycaemia may lead to you saving a person’s life someday.