The pancreas is a small organ residing at the rear of your stomach.
The pancreas produces essential enzymes, which are used to break down food during the digestion process. Additionally, the pancreas secretes a hormone known as ‘insulin’, which regulates the body’s blood sugar levels.
Pancreatitis is the process whereby the pancreas becomes inflamed. This, in turn, damages the molecular structure of the pancreas and its abilities to produce insulin and other enzymes.
Your natural ability to fall foul of this terrible illness depends on the quantity of alcohol you consume over a prolonged period of time plus your genetic vulnerability to the illness. Some problem drinkers will fall victim to the illness much faster than others and even where less alcohol is consumed.
Medical science cannot explain exactly how excessive alcohol consumption has to be to have this negative effect on the human pancreas, but the causal relationship between heavy drink and pancreatitis is well established. If you consume alcohol without exceeding your recommended daily intake of alcohol units you can be assured that you will avoid this deadly illness.
Acute pancreatitis is the variety of pancreatitis which causes a sharp and noticeable pain in the upper abdominal region. Because the pain is noticeable, most people seek medical assistance quickly, for this reason, acute pancreatitis is much less likely to cause permanent damage than chronic pancreatitis.
Drinkaware.co.uk states that “in the UK, around 25% of acute pancreatitis is caused by alcohol”. They go on to explain that men are more likely to get acute pancreatitis due to alcohol, women are more likely to get it due to gallstones, however this doesn’t mean women can’t have alcohol induced pancreatitis.
Studies have shown that 4 in 5 sufferers who contract acute pancreatitis do in fact make a full recovery within a few days, but if you’re unlucky you could end up with a permanently damaged pancreas. In the worst-case scenario the enzymes your pancreas secretes could seep into your bloodstream and cause permanent kidney failure and death.
If you regularly exceed 6 to 8 units of alcohol per day and you exhibit any of the below symptoms which are indicative of acute pancreatitis, you are advised to seek medical attention without delay:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Constant ache in your ribs, abdominal area, and back
- Chronic Pancreatitis
When it comes to alcohol consumption, “it’s not fully understood how alcohol causes the pancreas to become swollen (inflamed). One theory is that is causes enzymes inside the pancreas to start digesting it. Whatever the cause, there is a clear link between alcohol use and acute pancreatitis”.
Chronic pancreatitis is similar to acute pancreatitis and differs only in its severity. Chronic pancreatitis tends to be less painful than its acute cousin, but chronic pancreatitis lasts for a much longer period and its effects are mostly permanent. Many people who develop alcohol induced chronic pancreatitis have a history of recurring episodes of acute pancreatitis.
Suffers of chronic pancreatitis may require a regime of drugs for the remainder of their lifetime. Such drugs are used to aid the digestion of food and in regulating blood sugar, a function usually is taken care of by a healthy pancreas.
Chronic pancreatitis clients may also develop diabetes due to the fact that a damaged pancreas can no longer produce insulin, an essential hormone that controls the body’s blood sugar.
Chronic pancreatitis has also been known to cause unpleasantries such as pancreatic cysts known as ‘pseudocysts’ and pancreatic cancer. “You’re probably more likely to develop severe pancreatitis if you have 2 or more alcohol drinks a day, are obese, smoke, are over 70, and if you have a family history of pancreatitis”, says the NHS. Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis could include:
- Weight loss
- Yellowing of eyes and skin (jaundice)
- Greasy, floating, and foul-smelling bowel motions
Ceasing to drink alcohol following diagnosis of chronic pancreatitis is a key mitigating step to implement. Ceasing to drink alcohol will halt further damage to your pancreas and in some cases arrest the development of the condition into retreat.
Drinkaware.co.uk explains that “chronic pancreatitis most commonly develops in men aged 30-40 years old who are long term heavy drinkers”.
Testing for Pancreatitis
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms outlined above and suspect you may be suffering from pancreatitis, whether acute or chronic, there are a number of ways that you can be tested for a diagnosis.
Firstly, it’s important to analyse the digestive enzymes in your blood as high levels could indicate acute pancreatitis, pancreatic function tests can determine if your pancreas is creating the correct number of enzymes.
It’s possible to undergo imaging tests such as an ultrasound, a CT scan, or an MRI to help identify any damage to your pancreas, you could also have a biopsy, urine test, and stool test, as ways to test for alcohol induced pancreatitis.
If you’re diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, you should stop drinking alcohol and eat a low-fat diet to reduce your risk of another attack and prevent the development of chronic pancreatitis.
If you’re diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, you must also stop drinking immediately as your pancreas will be unable to work properly. It’s important to consume zero alcohol as damage caused from chronic pancreatitis can be irreversible.
This is a very serious condition which could last a long time, for which you’ll need regular medication to ensure that you maintain healthy levels of blood sugar. “Chronic pancreatitis also increases the risk of other serious illnesses including diabetes and pancreatic cancer, one of the cancers with worst outcomes, by more than tenfold”, states drinkaware.co.uk.
If you’re suffering from alcohol induced pancreatitis, it’s vital that you get in touch with a medical professional. They can refer you to a professional drug and alcohol rehab centre to recover from your alcohol addiction if you’re struggling to stop drinking.