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Pancreatitis and Taking Digestive Enzymes

by
author image Peter Branney
Peter Branney has more than nine years of experience as a scientific researcher. He has contributed to scientific journals such as the "American Journal of Human Genetics," "PLoS Genetics," "PLoS One" and "Biology of the Cell." Branney holds a Ph.D., as well as a Bachelor of Science in biotechnology.
Pancreatitis and Taking Digestive Enzymes
Pancreatitis leads to problems with digestion. Photo Credit Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, an organ responsible for the production of several digestive enzymes and the hormone insulin. The pancreas is located behind the stomach and at the beginning of the small intestine, helping to digest food after it has left the stomach through the secretion of digestive juices. Although pancreatitis can present in different forms, some sufferers can see an improvement in their condition by treatment with digestive enzyme supplements.

Causes of Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis can present as an acute form, lasting only a few days, or chronic form, occurring over many years. Both the acute and chronic forms occur when the digestive juices attack the pancreas and nearby tissue, leading to episodes of pain. The most common cause of the acute form is gallstones, which are small, pebble-sized structures composed of hardened bile that cause inflammation of the pancreas as they pass through the common bile duct. The acute form can also be caused by heavy alcohol consumption, which, if continued, will lead to the chronic condition. Other causes include infection, abdominal trauma, medications, cancer and genetic diseases.

Diagnosing Pancreatitis

Patients presenting with pancreatitis symptoms will undergo a physical examination and blood tests to determine the extent of their illness. During pancreatitis, the levels of the pancreatic enzymes amylase and lipase will be elevated in the blood, often up to three times the normal level. The levels of other chemicals in the body can also be affected, including glucose, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and bicarbonate. Patients whose blood tests are abnormal will then undergo further assessment. This will normally mean examination of the pancreas through abdominal ultrasound, CT scan, endoscopic ultrasound or magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography.

Treating Pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis usually requires hospitalization, where the patient receives fluids, antibiotics and pain medication through an intravenous drip. The patient will not be allowed to eat, as the digestion of solid food will put too much strain on the pancreas and fasting will allow it to recover. Acute pancreatitis will usually resolve itself within a few days. When leaving the hospital, patients will be advised on how to prevent pancreatitis, usually through a reduction in alcohol consumption, fat intake and smoking cessation. Chronic pancreatitis patients will normally receive treatment for alcohol addiction, but surgery may be required for those presenting with tissue death.

Digestive Enzyme Supplements

Once a patient’s normal diet has resumed, the doctor may prescribe pancreatic digestive enzymes if the pancreas is unable to secrete enough of its own, especially if the patient is continuing to lose weight. These enzymes are normally produced using extracts from pig pancreas and will generally contain a large volume of lipase. These preparations need to be able to pass through the stomach, remaining intact after exposure to gastric acid, and leave the stomach when its contents are emptied. Once through the stomach, these enzymes then have to become activated in the small intestine, where they will carry out their digestive functions. Patients receiving enzyme preparations will take them once or twice with each meal they ingest.

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