The pancreas, a small organ located behind your stomach, produces digestive enzymes that flow through the pancreatic ducts to the small intestine, where they help break down food particles into usable nutrients. Pancreatic enzymes include a mixture of proteolytic enzymes that break down proteins, lipases that digest fats, and amylases responsible for breaking down carbohydrates. Conditions that affect the pancreas or gall bladder can cause a deficiency in pancreatic enzymes, leading to digestive disorders with a variety of symptoms.
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Pancreatitis, inflammation of the pancreas, can occur as an acute -- sudden onset -- condition, which affects approximately 210,000 people in the United States each year, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Normally pancreatic enzymes remain inactive until they reach the small intestine. Inflammation of the pancreas, however, causes the enzymes to attack the tissues inside the pancreas, leading to a deficiency of pancreatic enzymes in the digestive system.
Acute pancreatitis can occur due to the presence of gall stones, heavy alcohol consumption, abdominal trauma, medications, infections, tumors or genetic abnormalities. Acute pancreatitis causes sudden abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever and a rapid pulse, and can lead to dehydration and a low blood pressure, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.
Chronic pancreatitis describes inflammation of the pancreas that fails to improve or worsens over time, leading to permanent damage to the pancreas. The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, is long-term heavy alcohol consumption.
The long-term inflammation of the pancreas allows the digestive enzymes to damage the cells of the pancreas, leading to the buildup of scar tissue. Over time the enzymes destroy the pancreas, resulting in a deficiency of pancreatic digestive enzymes. Although patients with chronic pancreatitis experience abdominal pain, this pain subsides as the enzyme level decreases. The lack of enzymes causes diarrhea and oily stools, since the fats cannot be digested. Without sufficient pancreatic enzymes, fewer nutrients are available to enter the bloodstream, leading to weight loss.
Pancreatic cancer describes the abnormal growth of cells either within the pancreas, known as endocrine tumors, or in the pancreatic ducts, known as exocrine tumors. Pancreatic tumors can interfere with the ability of the pancreas to produce digestive enzymes, leading to a deficiency.
The gall bladder, an organ found under your liver, functions to store bile -- a substance produced by the liver containing water, salts, fats and bilirubin. Gall stones form when substances in the fluid fall out of solution and become solid, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Gall stones that leave the gall bladder can become lodged in the common bile duct, which joins with the pancreatic duct. This can lead to inflammation of the pancreas and affect the ability of the pancreas to produce digestive enzymes.