The Pancreas is a gland that is part of two systems: digestive (exocrine) and endocrine systems. It is 6” long, weighs 1/5 pound and looks something like a sweet potato. The “head” end nestles in a loop of the duodenum (small intestine), the main body lies behind the stomach and the tapering tail sits above the left kidney, below the spleen. Every day it produces 1.5 liters of digestive juices containing about 15 different enzymes that break down fats, proteins and carbohydrates; and bicarbonates to neutralize the acidic contents in the small intestine from the stomach. These juices are combined with the bile from the gallbladder to assist with digesting. The enzymes include amylase to break down the carbohydrates, producing gluclose; lipase to break down fats (lipids), producing fatty acids and glycerol; and protease enzymes, (trypsin and chymotrypsin) to breakdown proteins into amino acids.
As mentioned, the pancreas is also part of the endocrine system, as it regulates our blood sugar by releasing insulin, glucogen, and somatostatin into the bloodstream. These clusters of cells are called the Islets of Langerhans and will not be discussed in this Journey of Digestion blog.
Chronic pancreatitis in the United States results in more than 122,000 outpatient visits with more than 56,000 hospitalizations per year. There are approximately 5,000 new cases of acute pancreatitis in the United States every year. Studies show that the mortality rate associated with acute attacks alone is 10 percent.
Pancreatitis has two main causes (at 40% each) – gallstones blocking the entrance (head) and chronic (long-term) alcohol consumption; with some drugs and certain infections (i.e., mumps, Epstein Barr) also causing inflammation. It is triggered by its own enzymes that become activated while still inside and begin to digest tissues.
Alcohol causes the duodenum of the small intestines to retain water and actually stimulates the production of more pancreatic enzymes, so this just adds more pressure and swelling to the connection point of the pancreas and duodenum.
Natural healers to soothe pancreatitis include:
- Herbs for improving pancreatic function include milk thistle, holy basil, ginger, dandelion and turmeric. Drinking water with lemon, lime or apple cider vinegar and various herbal teas is strongly recommended.
- Using an anti-inflammatory protocol that decreases sugar, grains, processed foods, trans fats, and chemical exposure, can help promote a decrease in systemic inflammation and help with pain flare ups. While incorporating turmeric, ginger and ginseng to reduce inflammation.
- Many patients with chronic pancreatitis are deficient in antioxidants, which are vital for reducing free radicals and reducing inflammation. Blueberries, Reishi mushrooms and red grapes are great sources of antioxidants.
- Using medications to control pain may provide some relief, however, they cause more long-term problems for the pancreas.
- Mental and emotional stressors dramatically affect digestive juice production, resulting in less stomach acid, bile and pancreatic enzyme production. Stress also creates an environment for gallstone formation and pancreatic inflammation. Lower stress by simply taking 5 minutes and focusing on deep breathing at least 2-3 times daily.
- Acupuncture is an ancient remedy for pancreatitis, and there are a number of key pressure points of the body where acupuncture can relieve the pain and inflammation.
- When pain flares up, you may be better off avoiding solid food and having clear liquids such as broth; apple, cranberry or grape juice; or gelatin, thereby allowing the pancreas to rest.
Due to the location of the pancreas, pancreatic cancer is often not diagnosed until late stages when it begins to spread to other organs. Chronic pancreatitis is considered a risk factor for this cancer. If you are having some of the following symptoms, talk with your doctor:
- Dark Urine
- Light-colored or greasy stools
- Itchy skin / Skin irritation
- Belly or back pain
- Nausea / Vomiting
- Weight loss / poor appetite
- Gallbladder / Liver enlargement
- Blood clots
- Diabetes / Elevated blood sugars
Our Digestive Journey continues in our next blog, as we return to the colon and the liver (I know I said that last time, but we had a special request to share about the pancreas).
To Your Health & Happiness,
Michele Root ~ Empowering You!