Pancreatitis is a condition that involves inflammation of the pancreas a large gland that lies behind your stomach. It is an essential organ that produces the hormone insulin, which is responsible for regulating your blood sugar levels. If your pancreas stops working properly, as in the case of pancreatitis, your risk of developing diabetes increases.
Another important function that your pancreas carries out is the secretion of several digestive enzymes into your small intestine, through a tube called the pancreatic duct. Normally these enzymes do not become active until they reach your small intestine where they begin digesting fats, proteins and carbohydrates from the foods you eat. However, in sufferers of pancreatitis, these enzymes become prematurely active inside the pancreas and actually start digesting the pancreas itself.
There are two types of pancreatitis: acute and chronic. Acute cases usually occur suddenly and only last for a short period of time. They normally resolve on their own following a period of rest, increased fluid intake, and the avoidance of alcohol and rich fatty meals.
Chronic pancreatitis can last for years, causing sufferers to experience symptoms on and off. After your pancreas has been subjected to repeat attacks it can soon become sluggish and lose its effectiveness, as pancreatic tissue is destroyed and scarring occurs. In addition, further complications can develop, including low blood pressure with dizziness and fainting, heart or kidney failure, diabetes and abscesses inside your pancreas.
In chronic cases the patient may need to be admitted to hospital for intravenous fluids, antibiotics, strong painkillers such as pethidine or morphine, and other specialist treatment.
What causes your digestive enzymes to turn on your pancreas?
Pancreatitis can occur as a result of gallstones, excess alcohol, a sluggish immune system, or an infection – viruses like hepatitis and rubella can trigger the condition (Med Clin North Am 1993 Sep; 77(5): 1037-56).
Certain conventional drugs are also implicated in causing the condition, these include steroids, water tablets, anti-inflammatory tablets (such as diclofenac), and the antibiotic tetracycline. Fortunately, stopping the offending drug normally clears the problem up.
Acute pancreatitis is normally a result of drinking too much alcohol or gallstones. A gallstone can block the pancreatic duct, trapping digestive enzymes in the pancreas where they can become active.
Chronic cases most commonly result from many years of serious alcohol abuse but can also be triggered by just one acute attack especially if the pancreatic ducts are damaged. The damaged ducts cause the pancreas to become inflamed, tissue to be destroyed, and scar tissue to develop.
These nutrients can offer much-needed relief from acute and chronic pancreatitis
Nutrients that are able to reduce inflammation have been found to be effective for alleviating both acute and chronic cases of pancreatitis. Evening primrose oil is a well-known anti-inflammatory that has been found to be beneficial. It also acts as a preventative, helping to ward off attacks. The recommended dosage for evening primrose oil is 3,000mg a day.
Aloe vera has a double benefit when it comes to treating the condition it not only helps to reduce inflammation within the pancreas but also rebalances digestive juices in the bowel. The recommended dosage is half a cup of aloe vera juice twice a day.
Another nutrient used in the treatment of pancreatitis is Betain: it nourishes the pancreas and helps put a stop to diarrhoea a common symptom (J Gastroenterol Hepatol 1993, 8(1):60-62). It is available in capsule form and can be taken once or twice a day.
Repeat attacks of pancreatitis can cause a vitamin B12 deficiency, which increases the risk of anaemia (Glasbrenner B et al. Klin Wochenschr 1001. 69(4):168-172). For this reason, it is wise to take vitamin B12 in supplement form as a precaution, particularly for those suffering from chronic pancreatitis. The recommended dosage is 100mcg a day.
Supplementing with enzymes gives your digestive system a helping hand
Chronic pancreatitis causes indigestion and insufficient absorption of nutrients from your bowel. Fortunately natural enzymes like bromelain and papain (pineapple extracts) can help. They are able to digest protein inside your bowel and also have the added bonus of reducing inflammation both inside the pancreas and the bowel. The recommended dosage is 1,000mg taken three times a day.
Another supplement that provides substitute enzymes is Creon. It contains protease (an enzyme that helps facilitate the breakdown of proteins), lipase (which helps digest fats), and amylase (which breaks down certain types of carbohydrates, such as starch).
This preparation was found to be useful in improving digestion, reducing nausea and diarrhoea, and improving the overall well-being of patients with chronic pancreatitis (Orv Hetil 1990, 131(5):241-244). Creon is currently available on prescription only, as the dosage is dependent on the severity of your condition and must be determined by a doctor.
Recognise The Warning Signs That Can Signal Pancreatitis
Common symptoms to watch out for include:
Severe pain and swelling in the upper part of your abdomen
Excessive sweating, nausea or vomiting
Fever, mild jaundice and rapid pulse
Diarrhoea, containing undigested fats (called steatorrhoea). In chronic pancreatitis this may result in malnutrition and weight loss.
It is important to consult your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. A diagnosis is made based on presenting symptoms and following blood tests. In some cases an abdominal ultrasound may be carried out to check for gallstones and a CAT (computerised axial tomography) scan to detect inflammation or destruction of the pancreas.
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