Years of heavy drinking, high levels of fat in your blood, and taking certain medications can increase your risk for acute pancreatitis. Take these steps to prevent damage to your pancreas and reduce your risk for EPI and other serious health problems.
There are many things in life you can live without, but your pancreas isn’t one of them. This oddly-shaped organ has been described as looking like everything from a pear to a fish or tadpole. Buried deep inside the abdomen, located behind the stomach and nestled among the liver, spleen, and gallbladder, you may not even be entirely sure of what it does. The pancreas produces a number of enzymes, which are necessary to digest food. It also makes insulin, the hormone needed to keep blood sugar levels in check. It’s an important organ, and the health of your pancreas shouldn’t be ignored.
Every year in the United States, more than 200,000 people develop acute pancreatitis, a serious and painful inflammation of the pancreas. Left untreated, pancreatitis can worsen and become life threatening in extreme cases. Fortunately, there are preventive steps you can take to help reduce your risk for pancreatitis and other related health problems like exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). However, first it’s important to understand pancreatitis, what causes it, and how it’s linked to EPI.
Pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed and the digestive enzymes that should only be active inside the intestines start “digesting” the pancreas itself. The condition can be painful and affect digestion, keeping food from being properly absorbed, leading to nausea, vomiting, bloating, fever, and diarrhea. As a result, you can develop serious nutritional deficiencies and lose weight.
Pancreatitis can be acute, meaning it occurs suddenly. In most cases, acute pancreatitis goes away in a few days with specific dietary changes. Treatment may also include fluids, antibiotics, and pain medication.
Inflammation of the pancreas that gets worse over time is considered chronic pancreatitis. Persistent or chronic pancreatitis can damage the pancreas and lead to other problems,such as EPI. EPI develops when the pancreas isn’t able to produce the digestive enzymes needed to digest food.
Causes of Pancreatitis
When the pancreas suddenly becomes inflamed, there are two common causes: gallstones and chronic alcohol consumption. Gallstones, or pebbles made of hardened bile, can trigger acute pancreatitis if they leave the gallbladder and pass through or get lodged in the common bile duct, the tube connecting the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas to the small intestine.
Excessive alcohol consumption is another leading cause of acute pancreatitis. The condition can develop within hours or up to two days after heavy drinking.
Other causes of acute pancreatitis may include:
- High levels of fat in the blood
- High levels of calcium in the blood
- Abdominal injury that damages the pancreas
- Hormonal abnormalities
- Certain medications, such as steroids and estrogens
- Viral infection
- Genetic abnormalities of the pancreas
Research also shows that years of excessive drinking is a major risk factor for chronic pancreatitis. A 2012 study published in the journal Nature Genetics noted that there may be a genetic link between chronic pancreatitis and alcohol consumption.
There are ways you can protect your pancreas and reduce your risk for pancreatitis and other serious health problems like EPI:
1. Limit alcohol consumption. By drinking less or not at all, you can help protect your pancreas from the toxic effects of alcohol and reduce your risk for pancreatitis. A number of studies, including a population-based study in Denmark involving 17,905 people, found that high alcohol intake is associated with an increased risk of pancreatitis in both men and women.
2. Eat a low-fat diet. Gallstones, a leading cause of acute pancreatitis, can develop when too much cholesterol accumulates in your bile, the substance made by your liver to help digest fats. To reduce your risk for gallstones, eat a low-fat diet that includes whole grains and a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. To help prevent pancreatitis, specific foods to avoid include fatty or fried foods as well as full-fat dairy products. High triglyceride levels, or the amount of fats carried in your blood, can increase your risk for acute pancreatitis. So, it’s also important to limit foods high in simple sugars, such as sugary sweets and high-calorie beverages, that could raise your triglyceride levels.
3. Exercise regularly and lose excess weight. People who are overweight are more likely to develop gallstones, putting them at greater risk for acute pancreatitis. Losing extra pounds gradually and maintaining a healthy weight by eating a balanced diet and engaging in regular physical activity can help prevent gallstones from forming.
4. Skip crash diets. The caveat to losing weight is to do it gradually. When you go into crash-diet mode, prompting quick weight loss, your liver ramps up cholesterol production in response, which increases your risk for gallstones.
5. Don’t smoke. Studies show that smoking cigarettes is linked to acute pancreatitis. Researchers in Sweden followed 84,667 healthy women and men between the ages of 46 and 84 to examine how smoking affected their risk for acute pancreatitis. The study, published in the journal Gut, revealed that people who smoked the equivalent of at least one pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years had more than double the risk for non-gallstone-related acute pancreatitis than non-smokers had. Quitting smoking reduced the smokers’ risk for acute pancreatitis to the same level as that of non-smokers.
Pancreatitis can be a serious condition and if left unmanaged it may progress to EPI. If you have risk factors for pancreatitis or have experienced it before, make the appropriate lifestyle changes to prevent it from occurring in the future.