KNOW THE FACTS:

Each year, acute pancreatitis sends more than 200,000 Americans to the hospital. Many of those who suffer from pancreatic problems are also heavy drinkers. Habitual and excessive drinking damages the pancreas, and commonly causes pancreatitis.

Learning more about the links between alcohol and pancreatic problems can help you make better decisions to protect your health.

KNOW THE FUNCTION:

The pancreas plays an important role in food digestion and its conversion into fuel to power your body. It sends enzymes into the small intestine to digest carbohydrates, proteins, and fat. It also secretes insulin and glucagon, hormones that regulate the process of utilizing glucose, the body’s main source of energy. Insulin and glucagon control glucose levels, which helps all cells use the energy glucose provides. Insulin also ensures that extra glucose gets stored away as either glycogen or fat.

When you drink, alcohol damages pancreatic cells and influences metabolic processes involving insulin. This process leaves the pancreas open to dangerous inflammations.

KNOW THE RISKS:

A pancreas unaffected by alcohol sends enzymes out to the small intestine to metabolize food. Alcohol jumbles this process. It causes the pancreas to secrete its digestive juices internally, rather than sending the enzymes to the small intestine. These enzymes, as well as acetaldehyde— a substance produced from metabolizing, or breaking down the alcohol—are harmful to the pancreas. If you consume alcohol excessively over a long time, this continued process can cause inflammation, as well as swelling of tissues and blood vessels.

This inflammation is called pancreatitis, and it prevents the pancreas from working properly. Pancreatitis occurs as a sudden attack, called acute pancreatitis. As excessive drinking continues, the inflammation can become constant. This condition is known as chronic pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis is also a risk factor for the development of pancreatic cancer.
A heavy drinker may not be able to detect the build-up of pancreatic damage until the problems set off an attack.
An acute pancreatic attack causes symptoms including:

  • Abdominal pain, which may radiate up the back
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Diarrhea
  • Sweating

Chronic pancreatitis causes these symptoms as well as severe abdominal pain, significant reduction in pancreatic function and digestion, and blood sugar problems. Chronic pancreatitis can slowly destroy the pancreas and lead to diabetes or even death.

While a single drinking binge will not automatically lead to pancreatitis, the risk of developing the disease increases as excessive drinking continues over time.

These risks apply to all heavy drinkers, but only about 5 percent of people with alcohol dependence develop pancreatitis. Some people are more susceptible to the disease than others, but researchers have not yet identified exactly what environmental and genetic factors play the biggest role.

TREATMENT HELPS— BUT DOES NOT CURE

Abstinence from alcohol can slow the progression of pancreatitis and reduce its painful symptoms.A low-fat diet also may help. It is also critical to guard against infections and to get supportive treatment. Treatment options, including enzyme-replacement therapy or insulin, can improve pancreatic function. In some cases, surgery is necessary to relieve pain, clear blockages, and reduce attacks.

The effects of alcoholic pancreatitis can be managed, but not easily reversed.

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