Being an Unhealthy-Healthy Eater Part II: The Saga Continues with Chronic Pancreatitis

My digestive health has taken a turn for the inexplicable. If you read my previous post about my unhealthy-healthy habits, you'll know that I avoid certain foods because of undesirable digestive side-effects, like gas, bloating, and... eh... "output" problems. Well, I have a brand new problem that occurs when I eat too much fat. Now, when I say "too much," I don't mean that I eat fast food or fried foods or deceptively fatty foods (like a salad with bacon, cheese, ranch dressing) by the truckload. After I eat more than an estimated 5.0% Daily Value of total fat at one serving, I develop pancreatitis despite taking prescription-level pancreatic enzymes to help digest my food. So, I'm turning this into a learning experience for everybody! Gather 'round, gather 'round, it's story time!

In case you don't know, pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. Acute pancreatitis can kill you, because the speed and severity with which it develops can cause infection and organ damage. Fortunately(?) for me, my pancreatitis is chronic, which means it happens often and probably won't kill me. Nevertheless, it's still incredibly scary and painful.

So what causes the symptoms of pancreatitis? It helps to understand a little more about the pancreas, like what it does and where it is.

First, function! The pancreas is an organ that is part of both the endocrine system and the digestive system.

  • Endocrine: If you or someone you know has diabetes, you already know that the pancreas is responsible for insulin production. It also produces other hormones.
  • Digestive: The pancreas manufactures digestive juices, full of enzymes, that are released into the small intestine to digest and absorb nutrients from the foods you eat.
So, inflammation of the pancreas disrupts these functions. Symptoms of pancreatitis vary from person to person, but I experience frequent, voluminous, and dark urination, which is a symptom of diabetes, as well as all of the lovely digestive effects.

Second, location, location, location! Pain is a predominate symptom of pancreatitis, and the location of the pancreas greatly influences the localization of pain. In the simplest of terms, the pancreas is between your stomach and your back. Since your body is in a fairly delicate state of balance, you can imagine the impact organ irritation has; everything in your abdominal cavity is in there pretty snugly, so swelling of the pancreas causes it to push against your organs, causing intense pain that radiates to your back.

Totally drawn to scale.

And why does pancreatitis happen? Inflammation itself is a protective response that occurs in reaction to stimuli that the body perceives as harmful. Gallstones are the most common cause of acute pancreatitis, while alcohol is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can be a symptom of some diseases, and it can be the side effect of certain medications. Sometimes, pancreatitis is genetic with no external cause!

I did have my gallbladder removed in 2013 (which itself is a whole 'nother long, drawn-out, torturous story), but I never had gallstones. I had to have a followup procedure called an ERCP (yet another idea for a blog post), during which I had a temporary stent placed in one of the bile sphincters because I was still experiencing gallbladder-esque symptoms even though it had been evicted months before. Well, the procedure didn't help. I'm still haunted by the Ghost of Gallbladder Past. Here he is.

This is a photograph.

I don't drink alcohol at all, none of the medications I take cause pancreatitis, and I'm negative for the markers of idiopathic pancreatitis. So, it sort of goes without saying that, given the enigma that is my digestive system, no one knows why I get pancreatitis. Surprise!

What can you do to avoid pancreatitis? Don't abuse alcohol. Take it easy on the fatty foods. Mind your meds. Know if you have a family history. (If you're me, you follow all of these tenets to no avail. Mine vary from "no chocolate cake" to "count out your chickpeas before you eat them" and "only eat half a nutrition bar at a time." Disobeying those last two was the causes of prior pancreatitis flares).

What should you do if you think you're suffering from pancreatitis? If you experience severe, sudden pain ANYWHERE (not just your abdomen for pancreatitis), you should inform your doctor and/or go to the ER.

Questions? Leave a comment!

I am not a doctor. Please don't take my words as gospel because I have zero formal education related to this topic.

Sources: Understanding pancreatitis. American Gastroenterological Association. http://www.gastro.org/patient-center/digestive-conditions/pancreatitis. Accessed February 13, 2016.
Pancreatitis. The Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pancreatitis/basics/definition/CON-20028421. Accessed February 13, 2016.

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