Everyone has heard of pancreatic cancer, but pancreatitis is a significantly more common disease in gastroenterology and seems to be on an upward projection. Ironically, this disease gets almost no coverage in the general press. In the United States, it is among the top reasons for patients to be admitted to the hospital (1).
Now that I have your attention, let’s define pancreatitis. A rudimentary definition is an inflammation of the pancreas. There are both acute and chronic forms. We are going to address the acute – abrupt and of short duration – form. There are three acute types: mild, moderate and severe. Those with the mild type don’t have organ failure, whereas those with moderate acute pancreatitis experience short-term or transient (less than 48 hours) organ failure. Those with the severe type have persistent organ failure. One in five patients present with moderate or severe levels (2).
What are the symptoms?
In order to diagnosis this disease, the American College of Gastroenterology guidelines suggests that two of three symptoms be present. The three symptoms include severe abdominal pain; increased enzymes, amylase or lipase, that are at least three times greater than normal; and radiologic imaging (ultrasound, CT, MRI, abdominal and chest X-rays) that shows characteristic findings for this disease (3). Most of the time, the abdominal pain is epigastric, and it may also present with pain in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen (4). Approximately 90 percent of patients may also experience nausea and vomiting (5). In half of patients, there may also be pain that radiates to the back.
What are the risk factors?
There is a multitude of risk factors for acute pancreatitis. These include gallstones, alcohol, obesity and, to much lesser degree, drugs. Gallstones and alcohol may cause up to 75 percent of the cases (2). Many of the other cases of acute pancreatitis are considered idiopathic (of unknown causes). Although medications are potentially responsible for between 1.4 percent and 5.3 percent of cases, making it rare, the number of medications implicated is diverse (6) (7). These include certain classes of diabetes therapies, some antibiotics – Flagyl (metronidazole) and tetracycline – and immunosuppressive drugs used to treat ailments like autoimmune diseases. Even calcium may potentially increase the risk.
When given a multiple-choice question for risk factors that includes obesity as one of the answers, it’s a safe bet to choose that answer. Pancreatitis is no exception. However, in a recent study, using the Swedish Mammography Cohort and the Cohort of Swedish Men, results showed that central obesity is an important risk factor, not body mass index or obesity overall (8). In other words, it is fat in the belly that is very important, since this may increase risk more than twofold for the occurrence of a first-time acute pancreatitis episode.
Those who had a waist circumference of greater than 105 cm (41 inches) experienced this significantly increased risk compared to those who had a waist circumference of 75 to 85 cm (29.5 to 33.5 inches). The association between central obesity and acute pancreatitis occurred in both gallbladder-induced and nongallbladder-induced disease. There were 68,158 patients involved in the study with a median duration of 12 years. Remember that waistline is measured not from the hips, but rather from the navel. This may be surprising wake-up call for some.
What makes acute pancreatitis so noteworthy and potentially dangerous is that the rate of organ failure and mortality is surprisingly high. One study found that the risk of mortality was 5 percent overall. This statistic broke out into a smaller percentage for mild acute pancreatitis and a greater percentage for severe acute pancreatitis, 1.5 percent and 17 percent respectively (9). This was a prospective (forward-looking) observational trial involving 1,005 patients.
However, in another study, when patients were hospitalized for this disease, the mortality rate was even higher at 10 percent overall (10).
The pancreas is a critical organ for balancing glucose (sugar) in the body. In a recent meta-analysis (involving 24 observational trials), the results showed that more than one-third of patients diagnosed with acute pancreatitis went on to develop pre-diabetes or diabetes (11). Within the first year, 15 percent of patients were newly diagnosed with diabetes. After five years, it was even worse; the risk of diabetes increased by 2.7-fold. This is scary, considering that diabetes has become a pandemic. If we can reduce the risk of pancreatitis, we may also help to reduce the risk of diabetes.
Gallstones and gallbladder sludge are major risk factors, accounting for 35 to 40 percent of acute pancreatitis incidence (12). Gallstones are thought to cause pancreatitis by temporarily blocking the duct shared by the pancreas and gallbladder that leads into the small intestine. When the liver enzyme ALT is elevated threefold (measured through a simple blood test), it has a positive predictive value of 95 percent that it is indeed gallstone-induced pancreatitis (13).
If it is gallstone-induced, surgery plays an important role in helping to resolve pancreatitis and prevent recurrence of acute pancreatitis. In a recent study, results showed that surgery to remove the gallbladder was better than medical treatment when comparing hospitalized patients with this disease (14). Surgery trumped medical treatment in terms of outcomes, complication rates, length of stay in the hospital and overall cost for patients with mild acute pancreatitis. This was a retrospective (backward-looking) study with 102 patients.
Can diet have an impact?
The short answer is: yes. What foods specifically? In a large, prospective observational study, results showed that there was a direct linear relationship between those who consumed vegetables and a decreased risk of nongallstone acute pancreatitis (15). For every two serving of vegetables, there was 17 percent drop in the risk of pancreatitis. Those who consumed the most vegetables – the highest quintile (4.6 servings per day) – had a 44 percent reduction in disease risk, compared to those who were in the lowest quintile (0.8 servings per day). There were 80,000 participants involved in the study with an 11-year follow-up. The authors surmise that the reason for this effect with vegetables may have to do with their antioxidant properties, since acute pancreatitis increases oxidative stress on the pancreas.
(1) Gastroenterology. 2012;143:1179-1187. (2) www.uptodate.com. (3) Am J Gastroenterol. 2013;108:1400-1415. (4) JAMA. 2004;291:2865-2868. (5) Am J Gastroenterol. 2006;101:2379-2400. (6) Gut. 1995;37:565-567. (7) Dig Dis Sci. 2010;55:2977-2981. (8) Am J Gastroenterol. 2013;108:133-139. (9) Dig Liver Dis. 2004;36:205-211. (10) Dig Dis Sci. 1985;30:573-574. (11) Gut. 2014;63:818-831. (12) Gastroenterology. 2007;132:2022-2044. (13) Am J Gastroenterol. 1994;89:1863-1866. (14) Am J Surg online. 2014 Sept. 20. (15) Gut. 2013;62:1187-1192.
Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, go to the website www.medicalcompassmd.com and/or consult your personal physician.