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Alcohol-Induced Pancreatitis

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Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas – an organ responsible for portions of digestion and blood sugar regulation. This often painful condition affects between 5 to 80 out of 100,000 individuals worldwide; however, 17% to 25% of cases of acute pancreatitis are alcohol-induced, making drinking an extremely significant risk factor for development. In fact, alcohol is second only to gallstones as the leading cause of pancreatitis.

If you are experiencing signs and symptoms associated with alcohol-induced pancreatitis due to substance use disorder, treatment is available to assist you on the path to total wellness. Guardian Recovery offers programs such as alcohol detox and nutrition therapy to treat the emotional and physical components of alcohol use.

Our treatment advisors are available 24/7 to answer any questions you have about our program model and specific therapies. Reach out today to discover how we can work with you on your journey to sobriety, and read on to learn more about the link between alcohol and pancreatitis.

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Cause of Alcohol-Induced Pancreatitis

The pancreas is a large gland in the upper left quadrant of the abdomen behind the stomach. It serves two main functions: digestion and blood sugar (glucose) regulation.

The pancreas aids digestion by secreting digestive enzymes to break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. The enzymes produced by the pancreas join bile from the gallbladder and enter the first part of the small intestine together to digest food.

In terms of glucose control, this gland produces both essential hormones: insulin and glucagon. Insulin is released in response to eating and high blood sugar levels. Glucagon serves the opposite function, exerting its effects when blood glucose is too low.

Diseases such as pancreatitis, diabetes, and pancreatic cancer are just some conditions impacting how well the pancreas functions. The inflammation associated with pancreatitis, in particular, has system-wide effects. It can be acute or chronic, meaning pancreatitis can come on suddenly or develop over a long period.

While the exact mechanism of how pancreatitis develops is incompletely understood, research points to the abnormal, premature activation of certain pancreatic enzymes. This sudden, exaggerated enzyme activity damages pancreatic cells, triggering systemic inflammation. Left untreated, it can advance to severe, multi-system organ failure.

Gallstone blockages, excessive alcohol use, high cholesterol, and genetic mutations can provoke acute pancreatitis. This condition is especially concerning, as a multitude of uncomfortable symptoms follows its rapid onset.

Signs & Symptoms of Acute Pancreatitis Include:

  • Sharp, sudden, severe pain, commonly in the upper left side of the abdomen, with possible radiation to the back.
  • Pain relieved by bending forward.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Fever.
  • Sweating.
  • Distended stomach that is tender to the touch.
  • Skin discoloration around the belly button.

Chronic Alcohol Use & Pancreatitis

Chronic alcohol use can cause pancreatitis in certain individuals, although it is unclear why some people who drink frequently develop the condition and others do not. Alcohol-induced pancreatitis does not develop after one incidence of heavy binge drinking. Instead, alcohol use must be long-term for this level of cellular damage to occur, usually four to five drinks daily for five years.

Evidence suggests chronic alcohol makes pancreatic enzymes thicker, causing them to harden and collect in the small ducts of pancreatic tissue. Over time, these blockages trigger inflammation and scarring, destroying many critical pancreatic cells necessary for proper functioning.

Additionally, the body’s process for metabolizing alcohol is hard on several organs, the pancreas included. It may even promote self-digestion, a condition in which pancreatic enzymes break down the organ itself.

While many long-term alcohol users do not go on to develop pancreatitis, those who do may have other factors contributing to their chances of getting this condition.

Risk Factors Contributing to Alcohol-Induced Pancreatitis Include:

  • Genetics or a family history of pancreatitis.
  • Diets high in fat.
  • Cigarette smoking.
  • Chronic or existing infection.
  • Once acute pancreatitis is treated, an individual may progress to chronic pancreatitis if the damage is extensive and they do not stop their alcohol use.

Complications of Alcohol-Induced Pancreatitis Include:

  • Systemic shock or sepsis from infection.
  • Organ failure.
  • Pleural effusion – a build-up of fluid between the lungs and chest wall.
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) – a collection of fluid in the tiny air pockets in the lungs that keeps oxygen from reaching your blood.
  • Diabetes.
  • Pancreatic cancer.
  • Blood clots and duct blockages within the pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and spleen.

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Alcohol-Induced Pancreatitis Treatment

Although alcohol-induced pancreatitis can be frightening once symptoms begin, quick treatment is the key to a full and speedy recovery.

Apart from recommending alcohol cessation, healthcare providers treat pancreatitis related to drinking in much the same way as they would pancreatitis from other causes. For the first few days after diagnosis, you may receive intravenous (IV) hydration since you will not be able to eat or drink anything to allow the pancreas to rest. Afterward, your treatment team will likely recommend dietary changes, such as reducing fat and sugar intake.

If your condition is more severe, hospitalization may be required to stabilize you and monitor your system for any signs of organ failure or decompensation.

Treatment of Moderate to Severe Pancreatitis Includes:

  • Fluid replacement via IV hydration.
  • Pain relief.
  • Monitoring heart rate, breathing, urine output, and electrolyte levels.
  • Tube feedings.
  • Antibiotics for any co-occurring infections.
  • Surgery if inflammation does not resolve with other treatment methods.

Your provider will typically refer you to a gastroenterology (GI) specialist after discharge for follow-up. This specialist will discuss further lifestyle modifications and may continue to monitor your organ functioning and enzyme levels to prevent a recurrence. Likewise, you may be referred to an addiction specialist or alcohol rehabilitation center to address the underlying cause of long-term alcohol use.

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Pancreatitis interferes with multiple aspects of daily life. The pain and lifestyle impact associated with this condition can be debilitating. While it has numerous risk factors, perhaps none is more preventable than alcohol use. Although moderate to severe drinking is a significant cause of pancreatic inflammation, the effects are reversible with alcohol cessation.

Guardian Recovery knows that alcohol use affects everyone differently, so your treatment must be tailored to your specific health needs. Our individualized approach allows us to focus on your entire health history and create a plan to help you meet your wellness goals.

Our admission process is simple: Once you reach out, we will provide a free, no-obligation health insurance benefits check and complimentary assessment. The entire process takes just 15 minutes at one of our local facilities. Contact us today for more information about how we can help you heal.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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