Many health problems can be produced by heavy, chronic alcohol use, and one of these is pancreatitis. But how precisely does alcoholism contribute to this condition?
Most people don’t spend much time thinking about their pancreas, which is an organ located behind the stomach and under the ribcage. However, despite its small form and the nominal amount of discussion associated with it, it’s vitally important.
Indeed, the pancreas produces two substances crucial for life: digestive liquids that the intestines use to metabolize food, and hormones, such as insulin, which also aid in digestion and blood sugar regulation.
Pancreatitis develops when the organ becomes inflamed, and its cells are damaged. There are two forms of pancreatitis: acute, which is short-term and temporary, and chronic, which is persistent and irreversible. Heavy alcohol use can be responsible for both of these conditions.
Acute vs. Chronic Pancreatitis
Most instances of acute pancreatitis develop rapidly. The pancreas is subject to inflammation, but it only remains in this condition for a few days and usually does not result in irreversible damage. However, one in five acute pancreatitis cases is considered severe, as pancreatic enzymes can infiltrate the bloodstream and result in more severe conditions, such as kidney failure.
Researchers aren’t entirely sure how alcohol abuse factors into this condition. One popular suggestion is that the molecules in alcohol meddle with pancreatic cells and prevent them from working correctly.
Regardless of the cause, however, there is a definite link between acute pancreatitis and alcohol abuse—the more an individual drinks, the higher their risk of developing the condition. Symptoms may include stomach pain, often behind the ribs that spread to the back, nausea and vomiting, and fever.
Chronic pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas incurs inflammation and remains in this condition, then stops working correctly. Symptoms can include severe, recurring pain behind the ribs that spreads to the back, the presence of greasy, foul-smelling feces, and jaundice.
Chronic pancreatitis is typically the result of repeated bouts of acute pancreatitis, most often caused by excessive drinking (although gallstones can also cause it). Over time, the pancreas incurs permanent damage and becomes chronically inflamed. This may be worse if an individual smokes tobacco—cigarettes are thought to increase the harmful effects of alcohol on the pancreas.
Damage due to long-term pancreatitis can be permanent, and if a person is diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, they should stop drinking immediately and adopt a low-fat diet. These actions may decrease an individual’s risk of having another episode and developing chronic pancreatitis.
The outlook for many instances of chronic pancreatitis is not great. The damage is permanent, and people often need to take medication to digest food and sustain blood sugar levels. It’s generally a painful condition, but the discomfort may improve or even wane altogether after years of treatment.
Chronic Pancreatitis Can Raise the Risk of Other Health Disorders
About one-third of individuals with chronic pancreatitis will also develop diabetes. Because of damage inflicted on the pancreas, it can no longer produce the insulin needed to regulate blood sugar. However, it usually takes many years after a diagnosis of pancreatitis for this to occur.
Chronic pancreatitis can also result in a complication known as pseudocysts, which are leaked pancreatic sacs of fluids that develop on the organ’s surface. In most cases, these sacs don’t cause symptoms, but they may cause bloating, indigestion, and abdominal pain in some people.
Chronic pancreatitis also heightens an individual’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer, which has a low survival rate—only 7 percent live for five years or longer. And like any health disorder that causes an enormous amount of pain, chronic pancreatitis can dramatically affect a person mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
For those diagnosed with either acute or chronic pancreatitis, the most important thing they can do is quit consuming alcohol immediately. In doing so, individuals may reduce the amount of pain they experience and prevent further damage to the pancreas.
Due to complications that can manifest from abruptly halting excessive alcohol use, individuals seeking recovery are urged to consider participating in medical detox. This process should then be closely followed by an intensive addiction treatment program that provides people with the tools and support they need to maintain long-term sobriety and wellness.
Just Believe Recovery center offers comprehensive, evidence-based services that include behavioral therapy, individual and family counseling, group support, relapse prevention, aftercare planning, and more. Furthermore, we employ certified health professionals who specialize in addiction and facilitate these services with care and expertise to those whom we treat.