Pancreatitis and Alcohol: What You Need to Know

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Pancreatitis and Alcohol What You Need to Know

What Is Pancreatitis? 

Pancreatitis generally has two types: acute and chronic. Inflammation of the pancreas that only happens for short periods of time is referred to as acute pancreatitis. Most of the time, this is due to gallstones or heavy alcohol use. Other causes may include infections, medications, surgery, and trauma. In up to 15% of cases, the cause is unknown.

Signs and symptoms may range from mild to severe. Most patients with acute pancreatitis recover completely after treatment.

In severe cases, this can result in bleeding, cyst formation, infection, and tissue damage. Severe cases may also damage other organs like the heart, lungs, and kidneys.

Chronic pancreatitis, on the other hand, often results from the long-term effects of alcohol on the pancreas. With this type, there is long-lasting inflammation. In approximately 70% these of cases, heavy and long-term alcohol drinking is the cause. Cystic fibrosis, high triglyceride levels, gallstones, and medications may also be risk factors.

Symptoms may occur suddenly or after years.

How Does Alcohol Cause Pancreatitis?

There are some positive effects of alcohol products that cannot be denied. People use them for recreation, in religious practice, cooking, and to feel relaxed and calm. However, it does not do any good for the pancreas when taken in excessive amounts on a regular basis.

Pancreatitis from alcohol use can be painful and fatal. Approximately one-third of acute pancreatitis cases in the US are alcohol-induced.

Despite years of studies, the connection that explains how alcohol may cause pancreatitis remains elusive. Not much is known about the earliest alcohol effect on the pancreas, and obtaining tissue for examination is quite difficult since it is difficult to access, especially considering its position in the abdomen.

However, epidemiological studies clearly show a connection between pancreatitis and alcohol. The recurrence of acute episodes is almost always associated with the level of drinking the patient engaged in.

One study found that those who regularly drank more than 35 units of alcohol per week, which is equivalent to approximately 16 cans of beer or 4 bottles of wine, were 4 times more likely to develop acute pancreatitis than those who never drank alcohol at all.

The earliest studies were focused on the Sphincter of Oddi (SO). Most studies think that it is the changes in SO motility due to alcohol exposure that greatly contributes to the development of pancreatitis.

There is an increased SO tone, also known as the spasmogenic effect of alcohol, which causes pancreatic enzymes to go to the unprotected tissues of the gland. Instead of digesting food in the intestines, these enzymes “autodigest” the pancreatic cells themselves.

Other researchers looked into the direct toxic effects of alcohol on the pancreas.

The metabolism of alcohol into toxic substances also plays a major role. One by-product of alcohol metabolism is the generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) or free radicals. These are unstable molecules that can cause damage to cell membranes, proteins, and DNA through the process of oxidation.

Increased ROS level with a concomitant decrease of antioxidants can cause cellular stress. This has been demonstrated in experimental studies, both in animals and humans with cases of pancreatitis from alcohol use.

Alcohol metabolism by the liver also produces toxic metabolites like acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde binds to liver proteins, altering its function and promoting a harmful immune response.

What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatitis? 

The signs and symptoms may vary, depending on which type one is experiencing.

Patients with acute pancreatitis would most likely complain of upper abdominal pain, which may radiate to your back and feel worse after eating.

Fever, nausea, and vomiting are also common.

Chronic pancreatitis can also present as stomach pain after drinking, but it usually comes with weight loss and an oily, foul-smelling stool, because of malabsorption.

Poor absorption of food happens because of the lack of pancreatic enzymes to digest food. Also, diabetes may occur if the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are affected.

Stop Drinking Alcohol to Prevent Further Damage to the Pancreas 

The mainstays of treatment for pancreatitis from alcohol use include hospital admission, IV fluids, pain relief, and of course, nutrition. Other treatment measures, such as the use of enzyme inhibitors to reduce the corrosive effects of the digestive enzymes in the pancreas, are not yet of proven benefit.

Also, it is not yet fully established whether antibiotics should be included in the standard treatment options for pancreatitis, though prophylaxis in severe cases has shown to be beneficial in controlling secondary infections.

Still, prevention is better than a cure! The single most important thing one can do to avoid pancreatitis or control its progression is to stop or severely reduce drinking alcohol!

Some patients with chronic pancreatitis are already dependent on alcohol and require an addiction treatment plan. A Christ-based recovery center near Nashville can be of great help. Contact Haven House Recovery if you or a loved one need help with overcoming your alcohol addiction.

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