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The Effects of Alcohol on the Pancreas

The Effects of Alcohol on the PancreasWhat is the Pancreas?

The pancreas is a large gland located in the back of the abdomen, directly behind the stomach. It has two primary functions: digestion and blood sugar regulation.

For its digestive role, a specialized group of cells (acinar cells) within the pancreas produces digestive enzymes that are secreted into the small intestine through the pancreatic ducts.1 These enzymes aid in the digestion of carbohydrates and proteins, and help to break down fats.

To carry out its role in blood sugar regulation the pancreas produces two crucial hormones, insulin and glucagon. When blood sugar is too high, the pancreas secretes insulin to the bloodstream. When blood sugar levels are too low, the pancreas releases glucagon. A proper balance of blood sugar levels is crucial for the functions of key organs such as the brain, liver, and kidneys, and poorly regulated blood sugar can produce symptoms associated with diabetes.

What are the Effects of Alcohol on the Pancreas?

Heavy alcohol consumption is associated with pancreatitis, a very painful and potentially fatal inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreatic acinar cells metabolize alcohol into toxic byproducts that damage pancreatic ducts, and enzymes that are normally released into the digestive tract build up and begin to digest the pancreas itself.2 The damaged pancreatic tissue promotes inflammation, which leads to further damage of the pancreas. Pancreatitis can present as either acute pancreatitis or chronic pancreatitis.

Acute pancreatitis refers to painful attacks that develop suddenly and last a matter of days, most often as a result of gallstones or alcohol consumption.3 Chronic alcohol consumption over several years typically leads to the first onset of acute pancreatitis, although research has shown that a single occasion of drinking spirits (not beer or wine) can increase the risk of an acute attack of pancreatitis.4 About 1 in 3 cases of acute pancreatitis in the United States is caused by alcohol.5 Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:6
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Swollen and tender abdomen
  • Back pain
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin, whites of the eyes, and mucous membranes)
  • Low-grade fever
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased heart rate
  • Low blood pressure

Repeated cases of acute pancreatitis cause irreversible damage to the pancreas, leading to chronic pancreatitis. Ongoing alcoholism is the single most important risk factor for chronic pancreatitis. Findings from a large nationwide study showed that alcohol causes 4 out of every 10 cases in the United States.7

Chronic pancreatitis is characterized by recurrent abdominal pain that is often accompanied by nausea and weight loss.6 As a result of sustained damage to the pancreas, the secretion of enzymes needed for digestion and fat absorption is decreased, causing loss of digestive function over time. There is also an increased risk for diabetes due to the destruction of β-cells, the unique cells in the pancreas that produce, store, and release insulin.8 Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include:6

  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss
  • Back pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pale colored, oily stools
  • Onset of diabetes

Treatment Options

If you experience an incident of acute alcohol-induced pancreatitis, it is recommended that you immediately stop alcohol consumption and consult your doctor to develop a diet plan that meets your health needs. This is your best chance to avoid future incidents of acute pancreatitis and lower your risk for chronic pancreatitis. If you develop chronic alcohol-induced pancreatitis it may be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse the damage to your pancreas. It is likely that you will require lifelong medication to aid in digestion and blood sugar regulation.

Regardless of whether you have acute or chronic pancreatitis, the single most important thing to do is to stop using alcohol as soon as possible. If you are an alcoholic and find it difficult to stop drinking, you should seek treatment from a professional rehab center. Oftentimes, a long-term commitment to a residential treatment program for alcoholism may be needed to help you successfully abstain from alcohol.

Sources

  1. Petersen, O.H. (2018). Physiology of Acinar Cell Secretion. From The Pancreas: An Integrated Textbook of Basic Science, Medicine, and Surgery, 3rd edition. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
  2. Apte, M.V., Pirola, R.C., & Wilson, J.S. (2010). Mechanisms of alcoholic pancreatitis. Journal of Gastroenterology Hepatology, 25(12), 1816-1826.
  3. Wang, G.J., Gao, C.F., Wei, D., Wang, C., & Ding, S.Q. (2009). Acute pancreatitis: etiology and common pathogenesis. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 15(12), 1427-1430.
  4. Sadr Azodi, O., Orsini, N., Andrén-Sandberg, Å., & Wolk, A. (2011). Effect of type of alcoholic beverage in causing acute pancreatitis. British Journal of Surgery, 98(11), 1609-1616.
  5. Chowdhury, P., & Gupta, P. (2006). Pathophysiology of alcoholic pancreatitis: an overview. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 12(46), 7421-7427.
  6. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2017). Symptoms & Causes of Pancreatitis.
  7. The North American Pancreatitis Study Group. (2011). Alcohol and smoking as risk factors in an epidemiology study of patients with chronic pancreatitis. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 9(3), 266-273.
  8. Kim, J.Y., Lee, D.Y., Lee, Y.J., Park, K.J., Kim, K.H., Kim, J.W., & Kim, W.H. (2015). Chronic alcohol consumption potentiates the development of diabetes through pancreatic β-cell dysfunction. World Journal of Biological Chemistry, 6(1), 1-15.
Last Updated on October 23, 2019
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Michael Kaliszewski, PhD
Dr. Michael Kaliszewski is a freelance science writer with over 15 years of experience as a research scientist in both academia and industry.
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