The pancreas is a large gland located behind the stomach which regulates blood sugar and aids in digestion. When the pancreas becomes swollen or inflamed, a painful condition called pancreatitis develops.
While some risk factors for pancreatitis are beyond one’s control, heavy alcohol use is one major cause of the condition. Below, we’ll discuss the relationship between alcohol and pancreatitis, how the illness develops, and what you can do to reduce your risk.
What Is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, which can cause severe and life-threatening complications. Most commonly, it is caused by gallstones or alcohol abuse. Other causes and risk factors include family history, autoimmune diseases, infections, medications, cystic fibrosis, metabolic disorders, and trauma.
There are two types of pancreatitis: acute and chronic.
Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly and lasts for a short time. Most cases are mild, involving a short hospital stay and a full recovery after treatment. In severe cases, it can lead to cysts, bleeding, infection, and damage to tissues and organs.
Chronic pancreatitis develops over years and causes permanent damage and scarring to the pancreas. It’s associated with ongoing symptoms like pain, digestion issues, and diabetes. Still, most people who receive treatment for chronic pancreatitis have a good outlook.
Symptoms of Pancreatitis
Acute and chronic pancreatitis have similar symptoms, which can be either mild or severe. It often begins as a “sudden attack” of pain in the upper belly.
- Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
- Weight loss
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Onset of diabetes
- Greasy/oily stools
- Fever and increased heart rate (most common in acute pancreatitis)
In rare cases, pancreatitis can result in jaundice, when your skin and the whites of your eyes appear yellow. Individuals who develop chronic pancreatitis because of alcohol abuse will likely experience severe pain and discomfort with alcohol use.
Complications from chronic pancreatitis can lead to painful obstructions in the gastrointestinal tract, fluid around the pancreas that causes pseudocysts (linked to pain and vomiting), trouble breathing, kidney failure, and pancreatic cancer.
Can Alcohol Cause Pancreatitis?
Alcohol is one of the most common causes of pancreatitis, second only to gallstones. In the United States, about 1 in 3 cases of acute pancreatitis and 4 in 10 cases of chronic pancreatitis are caused by alcohol.
There are several ways in which pancreatitis related to alcoholism can come about, but most of them involve the buildup of toxic byproducts from alcohol. The pancreas plays a role in the breakdown of alcohol into toxins such as acetaldehyde, which are then eliminated from the body.
The presence of these toxins can eventually damage pancreatic tissue. This includes acinar cells, which produce and transport enzymes that help with digestion, and also help with the breakdown of alcohol. Toxins from alcohol can also lead to clogged pancreatic ducts.
It’s still unclear why some heavy drinkers develop pancreatitis and others do not. Researchers continue to study triggering and interacting factors. But despite the questions that remain, experts agree that reducing your consumption of alcohol also reduces your risk of pancreatitis.
How Much Alcohol Is Safe?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heavy drinking means over four drinks per day for men, or over three for women. However, this doesn’t mean you’re automatically safe from pancreatitis and other health conditions if you keep your consumption below these numbers.
Research shows that even a single occasion of excessive liquor consumption can increase your chances of acute pancreatitis. So, both chronic alcohol abuse and occasional binge drinking may heighten your risk.
In other words, if you want to drink alcohol without increasing your risk for pancreatitis, moderation is your best bet.
Diagnosis and Treatment for Pancreatitis
To diagnose pancreatitis, your doctor may test your blood to measure digestive enzyme levels. Unusually high enzyme levels typically indicate acute pancreatitis.
Other possible tests include:
- Ultrasound, MRI, and CT scan
- Pancreatic function test
- Biopsy to study tissue from your pancreas
- ERCP, which involves using an internal camera to examine your pancreatic and bile ducts
If you are diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, treatment generally involves a low-fat diet, pain medications, IV fluids, and antibiotics to treat infection. In more severe cases, treatment may require gallstone removal, gallbladder surgery, or pancreas surgery. Typically, the damage to the pancreas is reversible with effective treatment.
While treatment for chronic pancreatitis is similar, it may also include insulin for diabetes, pancreatic enzymes to help your body get proper nutrients, and procedures to improve drainage and repair blockages. Chronic pancreatitis can lead to irreversible damage. Many patients who experience chronic pancreatitis rely on lifelong medication to help with blood sugar regulation and digestion.
Whether you develop acute or chronic pancreatitis, you will be encouraged to stop drinking alcohol. If you’re diagnosed with acute pancreatitis and continue drinking, you may develop chronic pancreatitis.
Cutting Back on Alcohol
One of the best ways to prevent or recover from pancreatitis is to reduce or stop your alcohol consumption. While this can be easier said than done, there are new ways of getting help without putting your life on hold.
Ria Health’s online program offers expert medical support, anti-craving medications, weekly coaching meetings, digital tools, and much more—100 percent from your smartphone. You don’t even need to quit completely if you don’t wish to.
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