Chronic Pancreatitis and Alcohol
After experiencing a pancreatitis attack, patients are often questioned about their alcohol consumption. But, what if you don’t drink alcohol or only consume it in moderation? Unfortunately, many healthcare providers may doubt your use of alcohol. Pancreatitis has long been viewed as a “disease of alcoholics,” leading to confusion for those who don’t drink or drink moderately. Thankfully, new research is providing a better understanding of the link between chronic pancreatitis and alcohol. It is now known that drinking alcohol does not directly cause chronic pancreatitis, and other factors (like genetics) may play a bigger role.
The Role of Alcohol
Medical professionals often focus too much, or solely, on the role of alcohol in pancreatitis. This bias results in pancreatitis patients being offered few treatment options and little hope.
Does alcohol cause chronic pancreatitis?
Alcohol can increase the risk of chronic pancreatitis; however, alcohol consumption alone does not directly cause the disease and it is not the greatest risk factor. Only very heavy drinking, or binge drinking, can lead to chronic pancreatitis. This means five drinks per day over a long period of time. Even among people who drink that amount, less than 5% will develop “alcohol-induced” chronic pancreatitis.
Causes of pancreatitis include:
- Physical injury to the pancreas
- Gallstones or other blockages
- Tobacco use (a greater risk factor than alcohol)
- Autoimmune Disorders
- Hypercalcemia (high levels of calcium in the blood)
- Chronic Renal Failure (decrease in the kidney’s ability to filter waste and fluid from blood)
Learn more about the causes of pancreatitis.
Can I drink alcohol with chronic pancreatitis?
People with chronic pancreatitis should not drink any alcohol whatsoever. This includes avoiding foods prepared with alcohol and some ‘alcohol-free’ drinks. This is because alcohol consumption can worsen your condition, causing more inflammation and damage to your pancreas and possibly increasing your risk of developing pancreatitis-related complications. Additionally, carrying on drinking will result in extreme abdominal pain.
Can I drink ‘alcohol-free’ beer and drinks with pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis patients should avoid drinking ‘alcohol-free’ or ‘non-alcoholic’ beer and drinks, as these can contain up to 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). In order to enjoy alcohol-free beverages, pancreatitis patients must check the packaging to confirm that they truly contain 0% alcohol.
Resources to Stop Drinking After Pancreatitis
Alcoholism is not a leading cause of chronic pancreatitis. However, for some, it is a factor. If you need support to quit drinking after a pancreatitis diagnosis, there are some resources that may help:
- HelpGuide.Org. HelpGuide.org offers a guide for overcoming alcohol addiction, providing tips that can help you get started on the road to recovery.
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information services (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to speak with a SAMHSA representative today.
- Recovery Apps. A number of recovery apps are available on your cell phone to help provide support in your sobriety and can help track your progress, connect you with others also in recovery, and more.
- SMART Recovery. SMART Recovery offers free evidence-based mutual support meetings (in-person or virtual), tools, and resources for those struggling with addiction.
- Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous offers free peer-to-peer support meetings through a 12-step, spiritually-based alcohol recovery program.
Focusing on Alcohol Hurts Pancreatitis Patients
The widespread belief that chronic pancreatitis is usually caused by alcohol abuse is harmful. Because most doctors believe that drinking is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis:
- Patients are stigmatized as alcoholics
- Patients don’t get the best care
- Children are accused of drinking
- Parents are accused of giving their children alcohol
- Patients who drink moderately are blamed for their illness
- Patients who do not drink are accused of lying
- A focus on alcohol slows the process of developing cures and treatments
- Physicians focus on the wrong things
- Patients are misdiagnosed
- The development of treatments and therapies has been slowed
Healthcare providers and researchers have focused on the role of alcohol on pancreatitis patients for far too long. This has led to poor outcomes and it must change.
Listen to Rashaunda as she shares her experience of her mother being repeatedly asked, “Are you a drinker?”
- Alcohol abuse can increase the risk of chronic pancreatitis, but it does not directly cause the disease
- Moderate alcohol consumption is not a direct cause of chronic pancreatitis
- Factors that can cause pancreatitis include genetics, physical injury, gallstones, and more
- Chronic pancreatitis patients should avoid both food and drink containing alcohol
- For patients where alcohol does play a role, there are resources (see above) to stop drinking
- The focus on alcohol has caused harm to pancreatitis patients and slowed the development of effective treatments and therapies
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