What is Pancreatitis?
The pancreas is one of the organs in our body with many different functions to regulate our bodies. It is a gland that can be found near the stomach and small intestine, and it is important in digestion and blood sugar regulation. The pancreas is important in releasing digestive enzymes to help to break down food in the small intestines for absorption into the body, and it also helps to produce hormones such as insulin and glucagon, which are vital in regulating our blood sugar levels.
The condition pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed, often due to the enzymes digesting the tissues in the pancreas. This causes the pancreas to swell and bleed, causing damage to the pancreas. Pancreatitis comes in 2 forms, mainly acute and chronic, where pancreatitis often refers to acute or short-term disease instead of the chronic one. If you are a heavy drinker, you may be at risk of pancreatitis. Learn more about alcohol use abuse and it’s detrimental effects here.
Acute and Chronic Pancreatitis
There are various symptoms of pancreatitis, such as fever due to inflammation, vomiting, increased heart rate, and sudden pain in the abdomen. These symptoms start to occur when the enzymes pre-maturely become activated before reaching the intestines, causing the digestion of the pancreas and pancreatic duct, leading to inflammation. Acute pancreatitis often comes in a sudden and short period of time, where it can be easily cured with medication. However, severe cases often last longer and require more medical attention. It can be triggered by various factors, such as the overconsumption of alcohol or the presence of gallstones. Other factors, such as certain medications and drugs, can also trigger the disease.
Chronic pancreatitis is the long term inflammation of the pancreas, which has devastating impacts on the digestion and absorption of nutrients in our body. Chronic pancreatitis is often developed in people who have prolonged excessive consumption of alcohol or alcoholics. They most probably have had several rounds of acute pancreatitis before the development of the chronic disease. The sudden pain experienced by patients with acute pancreatitis is also experienced by patients with chronic illness, but to a lower extent or sometimes, not at all. Additional symptoms of chronic pancreatitis include light-colored greasy stools due to the inability to digest and absorb fat, accompanied by weight loss.
Causes of Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis is often caused by the development of gallstones and prolonged usage of alcohol. Gallstones are hardened deposits of digestive fluids that are found in the gallbladder. It comprises mainly two substances, cholesterol, and bilirubin. Also found in jaundice, bilirubin is a byproduct generated from the breakdown of red blood cells present in bile. It has been found that gallstones caused forty to seventy percent of acute pancreatitis cases. Even small gallstones of less than 5 millimeters can already increase the risk of pancreatitis. How this works is because the accumulation of cholesterol and bilirubin can obstruct and block the pancreatic duct, preventing the release of the digestive enzymes, hence forcing the enzymes back into the pancreas, causing the inflammation.
The other cause of pancreatitis, alcoholism, is linked when the pancreas processes alcohol; it can produce substances that are toxic to the pancreatic cells, which produce the enzymes, hence damaging the pancreas. Alcohol can also make these cells more sensitive to cholecystokinin, the hormone which instructs the pancreas to secrete the enzymes. As a result, it could lead to overstimulation and the release of the enzymes, causing the enzymes to become activated early and hence resulting in pancreatitis.
Other Causes of Pancreatitis
Other causes of pancreatitis, such as drugs, can also lead to the inflammation of the pancreas. These drugs could be toxic or damaging to the pancreas, causing the constriction of the pancreatic duct or affect the processes in the pancreas. However, pancreatitis caused by drugs is not common, and it only accounts for 1 to 2 percent of pancreatitis cases. The common drugs responsible for pancreatitis are statins, ACE inhibitors, estrogens, diuretics, HAART, and valproic acid. These drugs work in different mechanisms to cause inflammation of the pancreas.
When the doctor suspects a case of pancreatitis, you will be instructed to carry out blood and imaging tests in order to ascertain that you indeed have pancreatitis and to find out which type of pancreatitis you have, acute or chronic. The reason why a blood test is needed is to determine the level of pancreatic enzymes you have in the blood. In acute pancreatitis, these enzymes are upregulated to almost more than three times its normal amount, which points to the diagnosis of pancreatitis.
Short term inflammation of the pancreas can be easily recovered from if it is mild. However, the patient would be required to follow some strict diet instructions in order to prevent or worsen the inflammation. For example, they would have to follow a diet plan which is low in fat and no alcohol. If not, it could trigger the inflammation to cause pain and discomfort. It would also be recommended for the patient to quit smoking, lose weight (if applicable), and drink less.
If the inflammation is severe or serious, hospitalization could be required, where the patient would be placed under IV fluids and insulin to monitor their fat and blood sugar levels. If there is a secondary infection, antibiotics would also come into play. In addition, if gallstones are responsible for the inflammation, the gallbladder would also need to be removed to prevent an infection in the future.
In both cases, if there is a need, surgery may be performed on your pancreas to ensure that your pancreas is kept healthy with the ability to recover well. Medications and vitamins could also be prescribed to help the digestion of fat due to the lack of a fully functioning pancreas.
There are four main ways to keep yourself healthy and away from pancreatitis:
- Reduce your consumption of alcohol
- Adopt a low-fat diet
- Bring exercise into your everyday life
- Quit smoking
In general, keep yourself healthy by having a balanced, low-fat diet, exercise regularly, and stay away from harmful substances, which can increase your chances of developing diseases. Pancreatitis most often afflicts heavy drinkers, so keep your alcohol consumption at a minimum.
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