The pancreas isn’t one of the most glamorous organs of the body, like the heart or lungs. It isn’t one of the unneeded organs either, like the appendix or a kidney. You don’t see it or feel it every day of your life, and most people do not know what it does. But it is actually more important for your health than you could ever imagine.
“The main role of the pancreas is to secrete hormones like insulin and other enzymes that are involved in food digestion — more specifically sugars,” says Dr. Erick Alayo, a Sharp-affiliated gastroenterologist for Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “When the pancreas becomes inflamed causing pancreatitis, it can cause severe symptoms and even be life-threatening.”
According to the National Pancreas Foundation, there are more than 300,000 hospital admissions each year for acute pancreatitis. Despite great advances in critical care medicine over the past 20 years, the mortality rate of acute pancreatitis has remained at about 10 percent of cases.
How do you get pancreatitis?
“Some patients develop pancreatitis with no clear cause or connection to any other disease,” says Dr. Alayo. “The most common factors for pancreatitis are smoking and heavy alcohol use, medication side effects, autoimmune disease, high triglycerides and trouble with gallstones.”
Symptoms of pancreatitis include gradual or sudden pain in the upper abdomen that worsens after eating. Other symptoms are a tender abdomen, fever, nausea, vomiting and a rapid pulse. Acute pancreatitis can present like other abdominal conditions such as appendicitis or gallstones, and like these conditions, it requires immediate medical attention.
Treatment for severe acute pancreatitis usually includes the insertion of a feeding tube to bypass the pancreas and move digested food directly to the small intestine; patients with mild pancreatitis need to be on IV fluids with no food by mouth (also known as NPO). After treatment, patients need to adjust their diet to reduce the chance of reoccurrence.
Dr. Alayo suggests that patients recovering from acute pancreatitis start with clear liquids only, such as broth or gelatin. If the body tolerates that well, patients can add other foods.
Suggestions for diet after pancreatitis:
- Eat a high-protein, low-fat diet with no more than 30 grams of fat per day
- Eat smaller meals and more often
- Quit smoking or chewing tobacco
- Lose weight (if you are overweight)
- Do not drink alcohol
Dr. Alayo suggests that patients meet with a dietitian to create a diet that provides sufficient calories to maintain a healthy weight and avoid fats such as:
- Red meat, pork, lamb and duck
- Cooking oils, including olive oil and all fried foods
- Dairy foods such as all cheeses, margarine, butter, cream, regular milk and ice cream
- All nuts and nut butters
“If you experience the symptoms of pancreatitis, you need to visit your doctor or emergency room right away,” says Dr. Alayo. “By following a careful diet, it is possible for patients who have experienced pancreatitis to live a healthy, active life.”