Alcohol and Pancreatitis

Your pancreas produces enzymes, which help with digestion, and hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, which control blood sugar levels.

Pancreatitis means your pancreas is inflamed and its cells are getting damaged. There are two types of pancreatitis, acute and chronic. Both are often caused by heavy drinking.

Acute pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is most often caused by a bout of heavy drinking or by gallstones. The main symptom is abdominal pain, felt just behind your ribs and spreading to your back.

The pain, which usually comes on over about an hour, can be severe. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting and fever. Most cases come on quickly and usually go away quickly, leaving no permanent damage.

However, 1-in-5 cases are severe. Other organs can be damaged by pancreatic enzymes getting into your bloodstream, which may lead to serious illness, such as kidney or respiratory failure. Each year, in the UK, between 5 and 80 people in every 100,000 are diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, and about 1-in-4 of these die.

If you are diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, you will be advised to avoid drinking alcohol and eat a low-fat diet. By doing this, you will reduce your risk of another attack, and the risk of developing chronic pancreatitis.

Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis means your pancreas is constantly inflamed and permanently damaged. Heavy drinking, usually over a period of 10 years or more, is the cause of about 8-in-10 cases, although the condition can also be hereditary. The main symptom is also abdominal pain, felt just behind your ribs and spreading to your back. The pain is recurrent, and may be mild initially, but can become severe. Weight loss is common for people with chronic pancreatitis.

Each year, in the UK, between 3 and 9 people in every 100,000 develop chronic pancreatitis. Men aged 40-50 are most commonly affected. If chronic pancreatitis is caused by heavy drinking, and you continue to drink alcohol, the condition can reduce your life expectancy by 10 to 20 years. In any case, your pancreas no longer works properly, so you will need to take medication for the rest of your life to help you digest food properly, and maintain your blood sugar levels, if they are affected

If you stop drinking as soon as you are diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, you improve your chances of controlling the condition. However, complications can still develop as a result of the damage to your pancreas, such as …

  • Diabetes – About 1-in-3 people with chronic pancreatitis develop diabetes because the damaged pancreas cannot make insulin effectively.
  • Pseudocysts – These develop when pancreatic fluid collects because a duct is blocked. About 1-in-4 people with chronic pancreatitis get a pseudocyst at some time. If they do not go away in time, they can be drained or removed.
  • Pancreatic cancer – People with chronic pancreatitis have a higher chance of getting pancreatic cancer.

How does alcohol cause pancreatitis?

A strong link exists between heavy drinking and pancreatitis. Alcohol can trigger the pancreas to become inflamed and damaged, impeding its functions and causing pain. However, the exact process by which alcohol causes either the acute and chronic version of the disease is unclear.

A study by the University of Liverpool concluded that acute pancreatitis occurs because alcohol acts as a stimulant for the pancreas to produce fatty acids and other fatty substances. These substances destroy cells and stop energy production in the pancreas.

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