Questions and Answers about Pancreatic Disease

Submitted by C D Johnson, Secretary, Pancreatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland

What is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis means inflammation of the pancreas.

There are two main types of pancreatitis, acute and chronic. Acute pancreatitis will get better completely and will not recur if its cause can be removed. The commonest cause of acute pancreatitis in this country is gallstones, which are relatively easy to deal with. A single attack of acute pancreatitis caused by gallstones, which gets better and is followed by appropriate treatment of the gallstones should not cause long term problems.

Chronic pancreatitis is a very different disease. It leads to progressive destruction of the pancreas and may be associated with repeated attacks of pain or almost constant severe abdominal pains. Gradually the pancreas is destroyed and then becomes unable to produce sufficient enzymes to allow proper digestion of food. Enzyme supplements may be necessary. Insulin is produced in the pancreas, and so people with severe chronic pancreatitis may also become diabetic.

What causes chronic pancreatitis?

In Europe and North America almost all cases of chronic pancreatitis are caused by excessive alcohol consumption. Many cases in the United Kingdom are also related to alcohol, but there seems to be a higher proportion of cases in this country which are caused by inherited factors (familial pancreatitis) for which no cause can be found. This is probably because the overall levels of alcohol consumption are low, so the numbers of alcohol related cases is also relatively low.

How can I modify my diet and daily activities to help treat pancreatitis?

The single most important change that any sufferer from chronic pancreatitis can make is to stop drinking alcohol. Even if you pancreatitis is not directly caused by alcohol, it is likely that drinking alcohol will harm the pancreas because it stimulates the production of a thick, sticky pancreatic juice which tends to clog the pancreatic ducts. This adds to the drainage already taking place in the pancreas.

It is probably also helpful to stop smoking, because smoking stresses the body’s natural defence mechanisms against inflammation and may contribute to the damage occurring in the pancreas.

A well balanced diet is probably helpful. You need not restrict fatty food and in fact an adequate intake of fat may help to prevent weight loss. If you have access to a dietician, you should ask for advice on how to maintain an intake of 100 grams of fat and 100 grams of protein each day. If this diet causes symptoms such as diarrhoea or looseness of stools it is better to begin or increase the dose of pancreatic enzyme supplements rather than to cut down the amount you are eating.

Can vitamin supplements help?

There is some evidence that antioxidants help to protect against inflammation in a wide variety of diseases There are many vitamin preparations with added antioxidants available from chemists and Health Food shops. These preparations will certainly do no harm, and some patients find their pain is less severe or less frequent when they are taking them. Look out for formulations which contain vitamin C, vitamin E and Selenium . (You will often see this as Selenium ACE.  There is also evidence that Omega 3 Fish Oils help people with cancer of the pancreas so there is no reason why it should not help all of us – Webmaster Editor).

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