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The pancreas is an often abused and misunderstood pretentious organ! It is central to blood sugar control and food digestion. Be good to it otherwise an angry pancreas can cause serious consequences which can be life-threatening or cause permanent damage. As a pancreatologist, I thought it important to breakdown the Secrets to Understand and Keep Your Pancreas Healthy.
A Look at the Pancreas Health and Understanding
The pancreas is a fish-shaped organ which sits in the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach and close to the back.
It has two main jobs
- Control your blood sugar
- Digest most of your food
The pancreas does job number 1 with hormones called insulin, which lowers blood sugar and glucagon, which raises blood sugar. These two hormones are in a dance throughout most of your life.
Job 2 is performed by enzymes. Enzymes are like little pac mans that are made in the non-active state by the pancreas and released into a tube called the pancreas duct. They enter the intestine and turn on, munching your food to a size that can be absorbed into your body.
With such vital jobs, striking balance is important for your safety, however when things go awry, boy are you in a word of hurt.
Pancreatitis is Inflammation of the Unhealthy Pancreas
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. Pain caused by pancreatitis is in the upper belly, usually wrapping around to the back. Ouch!
A pissed off pancreas is not something to take lightly. People, I take care of who have had pancreatitis have told me time and time again “that was the MOST painful thing, that I have ever felt in my life.” Some of these people have also said it is worse than childbirth.
The pain from pancreatitis is so severe because those little pac mans, which eat your food up so well, decided to eat up the pancreas instead. As a result, your pancreas can be damaged or gets angry, leading to inflammation, which of course is painful. Severe cases can cause parts of the pancreas to die (necrosis) or can damage other organs like your lungs, kidneys or blood vessels.
How Do You Get and Unhealthy Pancreas with Pancreatitis?
Abrupt pancreatitis occurs most commonly from stones dropping from the bile tubes. These tubes neighbor the pancreas tubes by micrometers. These stones can then plug up the pancreas and/or bile tubes.
Another common culprit is alcohol. Alcohol directly damaged the pancreas and makes you dehydrated, leading to poor blood flow to the pancreas. Again, this finicky organ doesn’t like changes, so it gets mad!
Tobacco smoke also acts similarly to alcohol, both changing the blood flow and by directly causing inflammation. The two together is worse than either alone and ALL PEOPLE with pancreatitis should AVOID TOBACCO AND ALCOHOL!
ALL PEOPLE with pancreatitis should AVOID TOBACCO AND ALCOHOL!
Other than these causes, there are hundreds of other potential causes for unhealthy pancreas for pancreatitis, including masses, medications, autoimmune diseases. Infections like mumps and viruses can also make your pancreas mad. There are hereditary subtypes and high triglycerides, a type of fat, can also overwhelm the pancreas, leading to a fuming gland. All in all it is very important to attempt identification of the cause of your pancreas health problems, as the potential for further events and treatments may change.
How to Medically Treat Acute Pancreatitis
The treatment for a pissed off unhappy pancreas is usually fasting, fluids, pain control and time. The thought behind fasting is to rest the gland. Putting food in your stomach will make the pancreas work, due to hormones released by the stomach, as well as direct effects of the food on the pancreas.
Despite the role of fasting, nutrition is also important in pancreatitis. Prolonged fasting states can lead to atrophy of the intestinal cells. This atrophy makes leaky gut more likely. Leaky gut is where bacteria that live inside the intestine can easily escape from the safety of your bowel to your blood stream. The end result, a blood stream infection.
After a few days, people need to have nutrition. Carbohydrates and protein tend to irritate the pancreas as much as fat does. A certain protein, glutamine may also have a direct benefit to the pancreas. Therefore, usually a low-fat content or at least GOOD FAT is the way to go. Low fat or GOOD fats work, because the pancreas is particularly sensitive to fat digestion. Let’s jump in deeper into fat, food and the pancreas.
Why Good Fats are Important to Keep Your Pancreas Healthy
Fats can best be compartmentalized into monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, and trans fats. Trans fats are considered bad as hydrogens have been SHOVED onto the molecule. This makes the fat more prone to create inflammation. Saturated fats are less bad but share some properties similar to trans fats and goods fats.
You need fat to maintain your weight, brain function, hormones, joint and skin health. Cutting fat out completely is really not an option. However, switching from poor quality fats to good fats is the key to success. As an added bonus, omega-3 fatty acids also can help with pancreatitis not only via the GOOD fats, but also the direct anti-inflammatory properties (click HERE for omega-3 info). For a further discussion on Fats, click HERE
This means avoid the following foods in addition to alcohol and tobacco:
- Red meat
- Organ meat
- Fried foods
- Full fat dairy
- Margarine, butter, lard
Essentially, I advise people who have an unhealthy pancreas or pancreatitis to use more good fats, limit saturated fats and NO trans fats. These recommendations are both good for the pancreas and food your general health. As an alternative, the Mediterranean Diet is another viable option.
The Mediterranean Diet and Keeping the Pancreas Healthy
The foundation of this diet is from societies who have incorporated a diet high in plants and low in animal sources, such as Italy and Greece. People in these communities have less obesity, heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and pancreas diseases.
In this diet, individuals eat:
- Tubers like potatoes
- GOOD fats.
- Nuts and seeds
- Wild caught fish
- Olive oil
- Avocado and derivative oil
This diet relies primarily on vegetables and fruits. There are less, but essentially GOOD fats and some saturated fats (poultry, eggs, dairy). Overall, these choices are a recipe for a happy pancreas.
Keto is NOT for Pancreas Disease
For further recipes, please see the National Pancreas Foundation cookbook for more information.
Chronic pancreatitis an Unhealthy Pancreas for a Long Time
Other than acute attacks and subsequent treatments, multiple injuries over time can lead to your pancreas healing with scar tissue. Your pancreas then is unable to do both of the above jobs well due to scar tissue getting in the way. This will cause pain, blockages in the tubes, leading to more pancreas digestion. Also, you are not as effective at digesting your food and controlling your blood sugar. The culmination of injuries over time leading to dysfunction of the pancreas is termed chronic pancreatitis.
People with chronic pancreatitis develop an inability for their digestive pac mans to exit the pancreas into the intestine to break down food. The food, especially fat, will remain undigested within the gut. Carbohydrates get fermented by your gut bacteria, causing gas, and bloating. Fats will lubricate the bowel and make it turn into a slip-and-slide, exiting the bowel faster. People may even see oil droplets in the stool. Inability to digest your food is called pancreatic exocrine insufficiency or PEI.
Chronic Pancreatitis Leads to Functional Problems with Fat Soluble Vitamin Deficiency
The result of this inability to digest fat leads to weight loss and a lack of ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K. Lack of vitamin A can cause night blindness. Vitamin D deficiency is termed rickets, leading to bone disease. Vitamin K deficiency can cause difficult with bleeding. Vitamin E deficiency causes muscle weakness. Scary, yes, but there are fixes available.
For some, doctors like myself can fix the plumbing issues inherent to chronic pancreatitis if a blockage of the pancreas tubes is present. Yet, for many the blockages are due to scars in the pancreas, which cannot be fixed with medications or with medical procedures. This requires treatments to perform the duties of the pancreas. We essentially give people their Pac Mans back.
Given Pac Man Enzymes, Do the Job to Keep the Pancreas Healthy
Pancreas enzymes are available over the counter or in prescription format. These are all termed pancreatic enzymes replacement. All of these pills do the job that the pancreas is supposed to be doing but cannot for the aforementioned reasons.
Giving these pills, rests the pancreas so the enzymes don’t have the action to be released (via food). Hence, you can better absorb nutrition, gain weight and correct vitamin issues as above. They are however, not at ALL the same.
Generally speaking, all digestive enzymes contain 3 pancreas Pac mans
How to Replace Your Pancreatic Enzymes
If shopping for an over the counter supplement, look for these three components. If you supplement does not have these enzymes, don’t take it. Stay away from fancy products with other additives. You want the purest form of enzymes.
Dosing is due to the minimal number of enzymes needed in your intestine to break food down. In reality you make about 10 times this from the pancreas naturally. It is impossible to supplement to this degree, as people would have to ingest 10-20 pills with each meal, oof!
Generally, it is recommended to use about 70,000 lipase units per main meal. This means with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Snacks you can be more lenient and use small doses (35,000 lipase units). If your pill has less than 70,000 units, take multiple pills. In time you should start to see subjective results of your supplementation.
Tracking Pancreatitis Progress and Keeping the Pancreas Healthy
After supplementing you should start to see results right in the comfort of your own home. There is no magic labs, imaging test or metric. If you are gaining weight or have less GI symptoms, you are heading in the right direction.
Make sure you check your weight. Though not a 100% accurate measure for lean muscle, conditions like this truly benefit from an increase in mass. Along the same lines, if you are making dramatic shifts in your diet, DON’T UNDER EAT! Make sure if you down the fat number that you replace it with protein or carbs to ensure you get proper nutrition.
To do this I recommend macro nutrition tracking. We have a wonderful post on this topic linked HERE. The MyFitnessPal app is free to download, and you can track your macros, scan in food to gain better insight into the numbers! Be scientific about it and you will be successful. Of course, if you need help we are here for you, click HERE to speak to one of us and HERE to get a CUSTOM NUTRITION PLAN.
The pancreas remains a curmudgeon in your abdomen that is central to digestion and controlling your blood sugar. When angry it can cause serious consequences and anger over time can lead to nutritional issues, along with pain. Avoid alcohol, tobacco and look at the quality and quantity of your FAT macronutrition. When all else fails seek the help of a pancreatologist such as myself and we can assist you will enzyme supplementation of plumbing issues you may be having.