Alcohol can have toxic effects on the pancreas. It can cause dysfunction and inflammation, which may lead to pancreatitis. It is advisable for people with pancreatitis to avoid alcohol altogether.

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, the organ situated behind the stomach. The pancreas has two main functions — making insulin to manage blood sugar and making enzymes and fluids to aid digestion.

However, the enzymes that digest food can also sometimes damage the pancreas and cause inflammation. This is known as pancreatitis.

This article discusses the connection between alcohol and pancreatitis and how consuming excessive alcohol may lead to adverse effects.

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The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders (NIDDK) advises that excessive alcohol use is a common cause of both acute and chronic pancreatitis.

Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly and is a short-term condition that usually improves after several days of medical treatment. However, chronic pancreatitis is a long lasting condition that worsens over time, leading to permanent damage to the pancreas.

Health experts may refer to this as alcohol-induced pancreatitis. Chronic and excessive alcohol use can result in the early activation of digestive enzymes that the pancreas produces. By activating early, these enzymes begin to digest the pancreas and increase the risk of inflammation.

Learn more about the difference between acute and chronic pancreatitis.

The NIDDK explains that doctors strongly advise people with pancreatitis to avoid alcohol entirely, even if their condition is in its early stages.

It notes that continuing to drink alcohol can lead to an increased incidence of acute pancreatitis or, eventually, chronic pancreatitis. Additionally, NIDDK warns that not giving up alcohol may lead to severe complications of pancreatitis.

Learn more about dietary advice for individuals with pancreatitis.

According to reviews in 2020 and 2021, pancreatitis is a complex multifactorial condition. Alcohol and other factors, such as genetics and lifestyle, play a part in the development of the condition.

Alcohol consumption produces fatty acids ethyl esters (FAEEs). These fatty acids persist for at least 24 hours after the body has eliminated the alcohol and cause a 20–50-fold increase in circulation during alcohol-induced pancreatitis. These FAEEs have direct toxic effects on the pancreas.

Additionally, alcohol can cause inflammation, oxidative stress, and metabolic dysregulation of the pancreas. The combination of smoking, consuming alcohol, and possibly genetic variations can cause stress to the membranes in the cells of the pancreas, which can trigger adverse effects.

Evidence suggests that alcohol-induced pancreatitis likely results from alcohol causing more viscous secretions that form protein plugs and block ducts in the pancreas. In addition, alcohol activates digestive enzymes prematurely, causing pancreatic tissues to auto-digest. These processes ultimately cause inflammation and dysfunction of the pancreas.

As well as causing pancreatitis, alcohol can also increase the risk of a person developing pancreatic cancer. This is typically due to chronic pancreatitis being a risk factor for pancreatic cancer.

The NIDDK advises that the following factors may increase the risk of someone developing pancreatitis:

The primary symptom of both acute and chronic pancreatitis is pain in the mid to left upper abdomen that spreads to the back. However, some people with chronic pancreatitis do not experience pain or symptoms until later stages.

Other symptoms someone with pancreatitis may experience include:

If people experience sudden pain in the mid to left part of their upper abdomen, below the breastbone, it is advisable to contact a doctor. The pain may intensify and become severe and may spread into the back.

Additionally, if people notice other symptoms that relate to problems with the pancreas, such as nausea, vomiting, and issues with digestion, it is advisable they seek medical care.

Pancreatitis can develop if someone consumes excessive alcohol. Alcohol affects the cells and functions of the pancreas, which can lead to inflammation.

Health experts advise that someone with pancreatitis avoids alcohol completely or potentially risks further complications.

If a person experiences severe abdominal pain and other symptoms such as vomiting and digestive issues, they should contact a doctor immediately.