We all know that alcoholism can damage your liver and brain, but most of us are unaware of another organ that alcohol progressively destroys: your pancreas.
What is a pancreas?
The pancreas is an organ located just behind your stomach. It is responsible for producing digestive juices (enzymes) and hormones (chemicals) such as insulin. Insulin is one of the hormones responsible for regulating blood sugar in your body.
How does diabetes develop in the general population?
If your body does not produce insulin or it does not respond appropriately to the insulin it is producing, you are unable to regulate your blood sugar and you become diabetic. Some people are noted to have diabetes as children, whilst the majority develop diabetes in middle age. Children and teens develop diabetes because their pancreas does not produce insulin. Middle-aged people produce insulin, but their body does not respond appropriately to the hormone. A few women get diabetes in pregnancy only for their blood sugar level to return to normal after the birth of the baby.
How it affects pancreas?
Alcohol abuse inflames the pancreas, leading to a condition known as pancreatitis. Most people who have had an attack of pancreatitis will report that they got a very severe pain in the area above the belly button after binging on alcohol. This pain is sometimes so severe, it feels as though it is piercing through to the back. The pain usually does not respond to over the counter pain killers. There may be associated vomiting. In most cases, the symptoms resolve after a few days.
How alcoholism causes diabetes?
If you get repeat attacks of pancreatitis or long-standing pancreatitis (medically known as ‘chronic pancreatitis’), the pancreatic tissue gets permanently damaged. It can no longer produce adequate insulin and you become diabetic. It also cannot produce digestive juices and you therefore cannot absorb the nutrients from your food appropriately. This leads to weight loss and passage of stools that float once they are in the toilet bowl. Severe constant pain is also a prominent feature and can cause one to limit their day to day activities. Diabetes acquired as a complication of long-standing pancreatitis does not respond to the usual tablets used to control blood sugar, one needs to be on insulin therapy.
Pancreatitis can kill
Severe attacks of pancreatitis can lead to failure of other organs in the body. This includes the kidneys and cardiorespiratory system (heart and lungs) leading to possible death. Pancreatitis has been associated with cancer.
Chronic pancreatitis has been found to be a risk factor for the development of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer has a poor prognosis with very low long survival rates (more than 70 per cent of people are dead within five years of being diagnosed with this cancer).
Who should you consult if you have chronic pancreatitis?
Ideally, you should start off with a visit to the general practitioner. He/she should be able to do all the necessary tests to determine if you have chronic pancreatitis. The tests done will include a scan of your belly to visualise the pancreas.
Common misdiagnosis: Stomach/intestinal ulcers
Most patients with chronic pancreatitis are often misdiagnosed as having ulcers. This is because the pain is in the same region. Pancreatitis does not, however, respond to antacids and other medication used to manage stomach ulcers.
Stop drinking alcohol: Unless you stop drinking, your pancreatitis will not be manageable.
Pain control: Once over the counter medications become ineffective, you will need to switch over to prescription pain killers. These are usually ‘stronger’ but are associated with a higher risk of developing dependency (‘getting hooked’). If these don’t work the doctor may need to look for more invasive methods such as destroying the nerve supply to the pancreas.
Blood sugar control: Usually need insulin
Digestion problems:The digestive enzymes can be given to you as a tablet to be taken with every meal. Once your body gets back the ability to digest food, you will gain weight.
Surgery: This is usually done in cases where medical treatment has failed to manage the pancreatitis (especially pain) or if there are concerns that there may be cancer in your pancreas.
Nutrition: Knowing what to eat and how much to eat is critical for someone with chronic pancreatitis. You should not simply change to a diabetic diet because you know that your body is not making sufficient insulin. You need to remember that your body is also not absorbing nutrients very well. A poor diet will result in poor weight gain despite being on proper medical treatment.
Can any ‘type’ of alcohol cause pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis has been found in people who over-indulge in alcohol of any kind (wines, spirits, beers, ciders and traditional alcoholic beverages). It has also been found in people who drink illicit brews.
Can effects of pancreatitis be reversed?
If you get minor episodes of pancreatitis, the pancreas often recovers fully. More severe cases, may leave you with fluid and cysts around and in your pancreas. Often these resolve with time. Chronic pancreatitis, however, destroys the pancreas and its effects cannot be reversed.
Can diabetics drink alcohol?
This is a discussion you need to have with your doctor if you are diabetic. Every individual is different. Generally speaking, the single occasional drink is not harmful to your health if your blood sugar is under control. Binge drinking (even though you are not an alcoholic), is harmful to your health.