Pancreatitis And Alcohol: Alcohol’s Effect On The Pancreas


Published On: April 12, 2023

Research has established for several decades that excessive alcohol consumption will negatively impact several organs in the body such as the heart, respiratory system, liver and the brain. (1,2)

However, the effect that alcohol has on the pancreas is less documented and not entirely clear until recently although, there are still some uncertainties. Unfortunately, many patients do experience painful symptoms of pancreatitis because of excessive alcohol use and many patients will die from the condition.

Scientific research claims that of all the recorded cases of chronic pancreatitis over three-quarters of them are due to heavy alcohol consumption. (1)

The Pancreas

UTI4

The pancreas is a small but significant organ in the human body, it is situated towards the back of the abdomen in a position behind the stomach. The pancreas plays a key role in the digestive process, as it secretes juices and enzymes that can break down food for the body to obtain its nutritional content.

The pancreas is also a key component of the endocrine and exocrine systems which activate many chemical and biological processes to ensure our bodies function as efficiently as possible, including temperature regulation, protection of organs and keeping our skin and hair healthy. (4,7)

The pancreas and the endocrine system

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The pancreas plays a key role in the body’s endocrine system, which is an intricate internal biological network consisting of glands, organs and biochemical processes that govern many aspects of human functioning, including metabolic rate, digestion, energy levels, reproductive processes, and growth.

The endocrine system also facilitates processes that help us recover from injury and illness and help us deal with stress and regulate our mood.

As with all complex mechanisms which contain several interrelated components, if one part of the system is affected then the efficiency of the whole system is drastically reduced, which affects many aspects of our physical and mental health.

One of the key functions of the pancreas is to help with the digestive process and stimulate hormone production, the pancreas is responsible for producing hormones such as insulin and glucagon which help to control the level of blood sugar.

Medical research indicates that there is a strong association between pancreatitis and type 2 diabetes which results from having too much sugar in the blood. (4)

The pancreas is also part of the exocrine (glands) system

The exocrine glands are responsible for generating and releasing substances to help the body run smoothly, some of the functions performed by the exocrine glands are:

  • Digestion of food.
  • Absorption of nutrients.
  • Protecting the inner lining of vital organs throughout the body.
  • Controlling body temperature.
  • Keep the skin and the hair lubricated. (1,4)

What is pancreatitis?

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Pancreatitis is a common inflammatory disorder of the pancreas that is predominantly caused by chronic alcohol consumption or gallstones.

People who develop acute pancreatitis will usually find their condition will resolve itself within a week but if the cause is not identified and/or dealt with the symptoms will return in the future at regular intervals.

Alcohol-related pancreatitis has been identified as a major global health risk which places a huge financial burden on many western economies. (3,8)

Symptoms of Pancreatitis

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The main symptom of pancreatitis is ongoing, severe pain in the abdomen. It is common for the pain to initially appear in the middle of the stomach, or to the left side and move along the patient’s back areas.

The pain has been referred to as a burning discomfort or a shooting pain that comes and goes at various intervals but each time it appears the pain can last for several hours and in some cases days.

Some patients diagnosed with pancreatitis have reported the pain coming on stronger after eating but, for many patients, there is no obvious trigger for the episodic pain they experience, some of which can be so intense that the patient may feel nauseous and begin to vomit.

If the condition continues and the patient does not seek medical attention and/or carries on drinking at their usual rate then the pain will appear more often and become more severe each time.

As the condition worsens patients will experience a permanent “dull” pain in their abdominal area in between the episodes of severe pain.

If a patient is diagnosed as having chronic pancreatitis and carries on drinking they will eventually have permanent discomfort in their stomach area. The pain does reduce significantly however if the patient is able to stop drinking alcohol or significantly reduce their intake. (5,6)

Chronic and acute pancreatitis

Alcohol addiction

Heavy drinkers may experience acute pancreatitis initially, but if they proceed to carry on drinking excessively without cutting down they will continue to experience the painful symptoms of acute pancreatitis at regular intervals, with the gap between the symptoms appearing becoming closer if they continue to drink at the same level.

Eventually, they will reach the stage where the condition becomes chronic and the damage to the pancreas is now permanent, if the patient still refuses to stop drinking then they will be in danger of developing even more serious medical conditions. (1,5,8)

How long does it take for pancreatitis to appear?

A woman clutching her side on her bed, in pain

When examining the characteristics of patients diagnosed with alcoholic pancreatitis it is apparent that it is usually males between the ages of 40-60 who present with the condition. This is probably because people who have been drinking alcohol heavily and persistently for 10-15 years will probably begin to initially suffer from its symptoms in this age range. (1)

How many alcoholic drinks cause pancreatitis

Table of smiling people clinking alcoholic beverages

The scientific consensus seems to be that the average alcohol intake of people who develop pancreatitis is 100 grammes to 150 grammes of alcohol per day.

This equates to 7-10 pints of beer (medium strength), 6-8 standard glasses of wine or measures of spirits per day on average over a period of 8 years minimum to 15 years maximum.

Bearing in mind some people start drinking alcohol in their mid-teens it is entirely plausible for heavy drinkers to be diagnosed with pancreatitis in their late 20s or early 30s and there are cases of alcohol-related pancreatitis appearing after 5 years after heavy use. (1,3)

However, some scientists feel that there are inconsistent findings in the research conducted in this area as not everyone who drinks heavily for 10-15 years develops pancreatitis.

Some medical researchers suggest that alcohol alone does not fully account for all chronic cases of pancreatitis and that there are several genetic and social factors that need to be considered as well. (2,5)

Alcohol is a significant risk factor for developing pancreatitis

Person enjoying a pub meal and beer

Prolonged, excessive alcohol consumption is acknowledged by the medical community as the main significant risk factor for developing pancreatitis.

Research carried out in America revealed that over 30% of cases of acute pancreatitis are a result of alcohol consumption and over two-thirds of patients diagnosed with pancreatitis report drinking heavily for 10-20 years. (6,10)

Overall, there are a lower number of heavy drinkers diagnosed with alcohol-induced pancreatitis compared to heart and liver disease, with only approximately 10% of excessive alcohol users developing symptoms of the condition.

It is thought that this is because rather than directly causing pancreatitis itself, heavy alcohol consumption does weaken the pancreas to such an extent that it makes a person vulnerable to developing the condition if other co-existing factors are also present which when combined with heavy alcohol use may trigger the disease. (6,10)

Risk factors for Pancreatitis

woman drinking 2

There are several risk factors for developing pancreatitis with individuals over 40 who have regularly exceeded the recommended daily alcohol units for over 10 years being the main one.

Other risk factors for pancreatitis include:

Smoking

Research indicates heavy smokers are at risk of alcohol-induced pancreatitis if they smoke and drink alcohol at excessive levels over a period of 5-10 years.

Results of various studies indicate a high correlation between smoking and heavy drinking with some studies revealing that approximately 90% of people diagnosed with alcohol dependence are smokers as well. (9,10)

Ethnicity

African American people have been found to be statistically two to three times more likely to develop pancreatitis compared to their Caucasian counterparts when all other variables have been controlled for.

High-fat diet/obesity

Research has shown that individuals who regularly consume high-fat food and/or are classed as clinically obese are more at risk of developing pancreatitis if they also drink high amounts of alcohol when compared with a control population who also consume high levels of alcohol.

Genetics

Some people’s genetic structure and internal physiology may place them at greater risk of developing pancreatitis if they are heavy drinkers, particularly if other risk factors such as diet and smoking apply to them as well. (10)

Chronic Pancreatitis is a debilitating condition

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The pain from chronic pancreatitis can be severe, and on many occasions, the patient may need to go to the hospital for treatment, with a high probability they may require surgery.

Because of the severe pain patients diagnosed with the condition have to endure they will probably be required to take painkillers regularly. This can be even more problematic for people who wish to continue drinking alcohol, particularly if they are prescribed, stronger painkillers that are opioid-based.

Although chronic pancreatitis can be managed by giving up alcohol and cigarettes the condition will not go away as the damage done is irreversible. (6,7,10)

Chronic/advanced Pancreatitis causes other health conditions

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Anyone diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis who ignores medical advice to stop drinking will soon find their condition will rapidly deteriorate.

This has other health consequences for the individual as the pancreas play a key role in the digestive process by generating digestive enzymes which are necessary to break down food and obtain nutritional qualities and eliminate waste products from the body.

This may reduce the efficiency of the patient’s immune system and make them weaker and unhealthier overall.

Patients who have reached this stage will find their symptoms become worse and they are heading towards advanced pancreatitis, which means they may notice other symptoms such as:

  • A significant weight reduction.
  • They may develop symptoms associated with diabetes including feeling thirsty, fatigued and having a regular need to urinate.
  • They will regularly feel nauseous and need to vomit.
  • They will have symptoms of jaundice, as their skin and eyes will have a distinct yellow colouring.
  • They will not feel like eating.
  • They are at risk of developing maldigestion which means their body is not able to obtain vital nutrients from food.
  • Their endocrine system will not function so well which means their energy levels will drop, they will be more vulnerable to infections and their mental health will decline.
  • Symptoms of Pancreatic cancer. (2,10)

Acute Pancreatitis is a clear warning sign

Individual therapy

Being diagnosed with acute pancreatitis is a warning sign for people to stop or at least drastically cut down their alcohol intake.

Anyone receiving this diagnosis cannot afford to continue drinking at their current rate, if they do then it is highly likely they will develop chronic pancreatitis within five to six years of symptoms of acute pancreatitis first appearing.

As well as severe long-term pain chronic pancreatitis leads to the calcification of pancreatic tissue and a decline in the efficiency of the exocrine and endocrine systems.

Acute pancreatitis is not a permanent disease and patients can overcome the condition and return to their previous level of health if they stop drinking alcohol or significantly reduce it for several months.

If a patient’s pancreatitis progresses to the chronic stage then that is the point of no return, and the medical objective is then management of the condition, not treatment. (2,9)

Addiction treatment / psychosocial therapies for people diagnosed with pancreatitis

12 step

It would be strongly recommended for people diagnosed with acute pancreatitis seek the services of alcohol misuse treatment services, either directly or through their GP.

It could be that the warning sign of acute pancreatitis is enough of a wake-up call to act as a catalyst for excessive drinkers to change their behaviour and devise a plan to give up alcohol.

However, anyone drinking alcohol at levels to develop pancreatitis is likely to be addicted to alcohol and may be unable to stop even if they wanted to.

This is because their body generates strong cravings for alcohol as part of their physical dependence and they have also developed a psychological reliance on alcohol to help them cope with the daily challenges in their life. (6a)

Joining an alcohol rehab programme is a necessity

The primary goal would be to establish whether people with alcohol-induced acute pancreatitis do have an alcohol use disorder and then to get them onto alcohol rehab treatment programmes as soon as possible, where they can receive detox treatment and psychological therapies to help them give up drinking.

Patients with acute pancreatitis can get better if they drastically cut down their alcohol intake or give up alcohol altogether so that their condition does not become chronic.

Patients with chronic pancreatitis need to give up drinking to stop their condition from becoming much worse and prevent other serious medical conditions from developing. (1)

References

(1) Chowdhury, P., Gupta, P. (2006) Pathophysiology of alcohol pancreatitis: An overview. Available @Pathophysiology of alcoholic pancreatitis: An overview – PMC (nih.gov)

(2) Feldman, M. (2021) Acute Pancreatitis. Available@ Alcoholic Pancreatitis – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

(3) Goldblum, J. (2018) Alcoholic Pancreatitis. available@Alcoholic Pancreatitis – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

(4) John Hopkins University (2022) Anatomy of the endocrine system. available@Anatomy of the Endocrine System | Johns Hopkins Medicine

(5) Lee, S.Y., Chan, C.Y. (2017) Acute alcoholic pancreatitis. available@Alcoholic Pancreatitis – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

(6) Markel, A. (2009) Alcohol-Induced Pancreatitis. available@Alcohol-Induced Pancreatitis (uspharmacist.com)

(6a) Moss, A, Dyer, K. (2010) The Psychology of addictive behaviour. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke, UK.

(7) National Health Service (2022) Acute Pancreatitis: Causes. available@Acute pancreatitis – Causes – NHS (www.nhs.uk)

(8) NHS Wales (2022) Pancreatitis (Chronic). available@NHS 111 Wales – Health A-Z: Pancreatitis (Chronic)

(9) Thorburn, D. (2004) How to Spot Hidden Alcoholics: using Behavioural Clues to Recognise Addiction in its Early stages. Galt publishing.

(10) Samokhvalov, A. et al (2015) Alcohol consumption as a risk factor for acute and chronic pancreatitis: A systematic review and a series of meta-analyses. The Lancet. Vol2 Issue 12. available@Alcohol Consumption as a Risk Factor for Acute and Chronic Pancreatitis: A Systematic Review and a Series of Meta-analyses – eBioMedicine (thelancet.com)

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