Pancreatitis is defined as inflammation of the pancreas that leads to cell damage. It can be chronic or acute, and it is especially problematic because your pancreas produces two essential substances: digestive juices (which your intestines need to break down food) and hormones needed for digestion (such as insulin). Even more, pancreatitis can cause progressive and irreversible damage to the pancreas gland. One of the leading causes of pancreatitis is alcohol abuse. Here is a brief look at pancreatitis and its relationship to alcohol abuse.
Acute vs. Chronic
Acute alcohol-related pancreatitis tends to manifest as a sudden onset of abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting. It can range from mild discomfort to a life-threatening condition. In more severe cases, it might be accompanied by significant metabolic abnormalities and/or circulatory collapse. In addition, someone experiencing acute alcohol-related pancreatitis might experience localized leakage of pancreatic fluid, narrowing of the bile duct, jaundice, and/or malabsorption. It is rare that a single alcoholic binge will result in acute pancreatitis; rather, prolonged overconsumption of alcohol for a period of 5 to 10 years typically precedes the initial onset of acute alcohol-related pancreatitis.
Chronic alcohol-related pancreatitis, of course, does not have as sudden of an onset as acute alcohol-related pancreatitis. It is characterized by abdominal pain, malabsorption/maldigestion, and diabetes resulting from exocrine and endocrine insufficiency. It is difficult to characterize with exactness the stages and natural progression of this type of pancreatitis because patients can suffer from symptoms for varying periods of time. Moreover, the pancreas is usually not biopsied until malignancy is suspected.
Pancreatitis and Alcohol
Pancreatitis is difficult to predict in those who drink or abuse alcohol because everyone has a unique susceptibility to pancreatitis. Some need only drink 20 grams of alcohol per day to develop chronic pancreatitis; others must drink upwards of 200 grams per day before developing chronic pancreatitis; and still others will never develop pancreatitis no matter how much they drink.
Research has shown that your risk of developing pancreatitis does generally increase with the amount of alcohol you consume. In addition, as alcohol is metabolized by the pancreas, over-consumption can cause stress in the gland.
While still the minority of alcoholics develop pancreatitis, you can never be too careful. Pancreatitis can occur at any age, and it can lead to a variety of complications, including bleeding into the gland, serious tissue damage, infection, and cyst formation. It can even affect other vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and kidneys. Diabetes might even develop if insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are damaged as a result of pancreatitis. In more severe cases, pancreatitis can even lead to death.