Your pancreas is a small, important organ located behind the stomach. It produces enzymes to break down food in your gut, and hormones that are involved in metabolism - including insulin which regulates your blood sugar levels.
Pancreatitis is when the pancreas becomes inflamed and its cells are damaged and it can be caused by heavy drinking.1 However, if you drink within the low risk drinking guidelines and avoid binge drinking you’re much less likely to develop pancreatitis.2
There are two main types of pancreatitis: acute and chronic. Although alcohol is not the only cause of pancreatitis, both chronic and acute pancreatitis can be caused by heavy drinking.3 Other unavoidable causes of acute and chronic pancreatitis are genetic and autoimmune disorders.
In the UK around 25% of acute pancreatitis cases are caused by alcohol.4
Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include a severe, dull pain around the top of your stomach, which typically comes on quickly. If caused by alcohol, symptoms might follow either regular heavy drinking or binge drinking.
Men are more likely to get acute pancreatitis due to alcohol, women more likely to get it due to gallstones.5
In acute pancreatitis, the pancreas becomes swollen and painful, but usually it only stays that way for a few days and permanent damage is uncommon. However, it can be dangerous for those who develop severe acute pancreatitis. In such cases, enzymes from your pancreas get into your blood stream and can lead to more serious conditions, including kidney failure. Most cases of acute pancreatitis require admission to hospital, typically for a few days.
Symptoms of acute pancreatitis include:
- Severe abdominal pain, just below the ribs and often spreading through the back
How does alcohol cause acute pancreatitis?
It is not yet understood exactly how alcohol causes acute pancreatitis.6 One theory is that the alcohol molecules interfere with the cells of the pancreas, stopping them working properly.
But, whatever the cause, there is a clear link between drinking alcohol and acute pancreatitis. The more alcohol you drink, either regularly or during a binge session, the greater your risk of developing acute pancreatitis, often recurrently.7
Heavy drinking and acute pancreatitis
Heavy drinking can lead to repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis. Over time, this can cause permanent damage to your pancreas, causing chronic pancreatitis.8,9
If you’re diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, you should stop drinking alcohol and eat a low-fat diet to reduce your risk of another attack and of developing chronic pancreatitis. Consuming alcohol once you’ve recovered from acute pancreatitis can make a future episode more serious.
Chronic pancreatitis is when the pancreas becomes inflamed and painful and stays that way for years, interfering with its ability to work properly. Heavy drinking is the single most important risk factor for chronic pancreatitis, responsible for between 70–80% of cases in western Europe.10
However, regularly drinking over the low risk drinking guidelines of 14 units a week for both men and women, will increase your risk of developing chronic pancreatitis.
The most common symptom is repeated episodes of severe abdominal pain, typically located below the ribs and through to the back. Other symptoms of chronic pancreatitis can include:
- Greasy, floating and foul-smelling bowel motions
- Weight loss
- Yellowing of eyes and skin (jaundice)
Chronic pancreatitis most commonly develops in men aged 30-40 years old who are long term heavy drinkers. Women are less commonly affected. Many people who develop alcohol related chronic pancreatitis have a history of recurrent episodes of acute pancreatitis.11,12 Smoking also increases your risk of developing the condition.13 In people with genetic or autoimmune causes of chronic pancreatitis, it may develop at a younger age.
Do not drink alcohol if you have chronic pancreatitis
If you have chronic pancreatitis you must stop drinking alcohol completely. Your pancreas will be unable to work properly and any alcohol can make the condition worse, causing more damage to your pancreas. Damage from chronic pancreatitis can be irreversible.
It is a serious long-term condition that needs permanent medication and a carefully designed diet to help digest food and to maintain normal blood sugar levels. The pain can be debilitating, and it can affect both quality of life and life expectancy. Chronic pancreatitis also increases the risk of other serious illness, including diabetes14 and increases and increases the risk of pancreatic cancer,15 one of the cancers with worst outcomes, by more than tenfold.
Why you must stop drinking alcohol completely if you have pancreatitis
With acute pancreatitis, even if it was not caused by alcohol, you should avoid drinking alcohol completely for at least six months to give the pancreas time to recover. After that, it’s best not to drink alcohol, but if you choose to return to drinking, be aware that it is important to remain within the low risk drinking guidelines. Continued heavy drinking will increase the risk of further episodes of acute pancreatitis.
If you are diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis you must stop drinking alcohol completely. This will stop your pancreas being damaged even more by alcohol. If you carry on drinking, you are likely to experience very severe pain as well as further damage to your pancreas.
If you’re finding it hard to stop drinking, or worried you might be dependent on alcohol, speak to your GP for advice on how to stop drinking.
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