Lifestyle Choices and Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis risks linked with alcohol and diet choices

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Day in, day out, most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about their pancreas. However, for those with pancreatitis, this gland plays a big role in their everyday lives.

Decisions about what to drink, what to eat and other lifestyle choices can be effected by the presence of this disorder, and are often considered closely.

Furthermore, some research shows that lifestyle choices that people make now can potentially effect their likelihood of developing the disorder later on.

Pancreas Problems

When the pancreas, which is located behind the stomach, becomes inflamed, pancreatitis can occur. This organ creates enzymes that are used in digestion and hormones that are used in the processing of sugar. 

Normally, these enzymes stay inactive until they reach the small intestine where they then start to aid in digestion. However, in pancreatitis, the enzymes activate while still inside the pancreas, irritating and inflaming the gland.

The disorder is seen in two different forms - acute and chronic. In acute pancreatitis, the disorder appears quickly and only lasts for a few days. In chronic pancreatitis, symptoms occur throughout the years.

Repeated instances of acute pancreatitis can, over time, lead to the chronic form of the disorder.

The Mayo Clinic reports that various causes can be behind pancreatitis, including gallstones, abdominal surgery or injury, alcoholism, cystic fibrosis, genetics, cigarettes, infections or high levels of calcium in the blood, among others.

Alcohol Interactions

A 2011 study led by O. Sadr Azodi, MD, PhD, from Karolinska University Hospital, explored how different types of alcohol can effect the risk of acute pancreatitis.

The study, published in the British Journal of Surgery used data from the Swedish Mammography Cohort and Cohort of Swedish Men, large databases gathered between 1987 and 1997.

For this particular study, Dr. Azodi and team followed 84,601 individuals between the ages of 46 and 84 for an average of 10 years.

Patients were asked questions related to their frequency of drinking, total alcohol consumption and the amount consumed on single occasions.

Throughout the course of the study, 513 of the subjects experienced acute pancreatitis.

Results showed that with each instance of five spirits (or liquor) drinks consumed on a single occasion, a 52 percent increased risk of developing the disorder was seen.

However, no such relationship was seen with wine or beer, only with the "binge drinking" of spirits.

This study did rely on self-reported alcohol consumption data from the subjects, which may not have been completely accurate.

Furthermore, some experts suggest that a faster rate of drinking per instance of binge drinking might play the main role in the risk of pancreatitis .

Further research needs to be done to confirm whether different types of alcohol effect the risk of pancreatitis differently.

Regardless, according to the Mayo Clinic, those with pancreatitis should be careful with their alcohol consumption, saying, "continuing to drink may worsen your pancreatitis and lead to serious complications."

Fruits and Veggies

Another study out of Sweden examined how diet could effect the risk of developing pancreatitis.

This study, led by Viktor Oskarsson, PhD student from Karolinska Institute, and published online in June 2012 in the journal Gut, looked at 80,019 subjects, also using large Swedish databases.

The subjects, ages 46 to 84 years old, completed a survey regarding the frequency of various foods in their diet in January 1998. In December 2009, follow-ups were completed to measure incidences of acute pancreatitis.

In total, 320 cases of acute pancreatitis occurred, 216 among men and 104 among women.

While the amount of fruit in the diet did not seem to effect the likelihood of pancreatitis, vegetables did seem to have an effect.

Those with the highest rate of vegetable consumption, or more than four servings a day, were shown to be 44 percent less likely to develop the disorder than those with the lowest levels of veggies in their diet, or less than one serving a day.

Furthermore, the authors found that for every two additional daily vegetable servings, patients were 17 percent less likely to develop the disorder.

This potential benefit from veggies seemed to be most effective in people who were overweight and in people who had more than one daily alcoholic drink.

Comparing the highest and lowest vegetable eaters in these two groups showed a lower risk of pancreatitis in the alcohol drinkers who ate the most veggies than in their alcohol-drinking peers who ate the least.  The same was true of those in the overweight group who ate the most vegetable compared to their low-veggie overweight peers.

Again, more research needs to be done to confirm these findings, as the diet data was self-reported and as additional lifestyle factors could be at play. However, it does provide an interesting look into how diet could potentially effect pancreatitis.

The Mayo Clinic does recommend that those diagnosed with pancreatitis "choose a diet that emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, and that limits fats." This advice is probably good for everyone, regardless of pancreatic health!

As more research is completed, more will be learned about the interactions between alcohol consumption, diet and the risk of developing pancreatitis.  However, healthy and balanced lifestyle decisions can help keep people fit and help protect them from a variety of disorders.

Review Date: 
September 24, 2012