Is Your Pancreas a Pain?

“The nausea and back pain are what bother me the most,” explained Ted, a 45-year-old banker with a history of pancreatitis. “My doctor wants me to stay home and rest and eat only soups. Thankfully it’s not so bad that I need to be in the hospital. I hope you have something to help me recover more quickly,” he pleaded.

“Yes I do,” I replied. “The goal is to help you get over this acute flare-up and then to get on a preventive program so it doesn’t happen again.”

Pancreatitis refers to inflammation of the pancreas. This important organ is located in the upper half of the abdomen and is surrounded by the stomach and small intestine. The pancreas has two primary functions. One is to produce digestive enzymes that are released into the small intestine to break down food. The other is to produce insulin and glucagon, hormones that regulate blood sugar levels.

Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis is often characterized by severe abdominal pain and may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. In addition, fever, fast pulse, abdominal distention, low or high blood pressure, and abnormal stools may result. Most cases of acute episodes are due to either excessive alcohol consumption or gallstones. Pancreatic enzymes are released through the same duct used to transport bile from the gallbladder and so gallstones trap these enzymes, leading to tissue inflammation.

Other causes of acute episodes can include viral infection, use of certain pharmaceuticals, pancreatic cancer or exposure to toxic chemicals. Blood tests help to confirm the diagnosis, and hospitalization is often required to stabilize an acute flare-up.

Chronic pancreatitis often involves symptoms of abdominal pain, malabsorption, and susceptibility to acute flare-ups. Alcoholism is the most common cause. This chronic inflammation leads to scarring and destruction of the pancreatic tissue and increased likelihood of digestive problems and diabetes.

What to Eat, What to Avoid

To prevent pancreatitis or to help speed recovery, people need to pay close attention to their diet. Essentially, a plant-based diet makes the most sense for those with chronic pancreatitis. A diet rich in vegetables supplies enzymes and antioxidants that are protective to the pancreas. If you have problems with raw fruits and vegetables, try them steamed or lightly cooked and incorporate raw foods when you can.

The role of food sensitivities is an undervalued factor. For some individuals with chronic pancreatitis, specific food sensitivities can bring on or worsen existing inflammation. Food sensitivity testing is available through a naturopathic or holistic practitioner. The diet for someone with acute pancreatitis is restricted to fluids and broths to reduce the inflammation. Fresh vegetable juicing can also be helpful. Make sure to avoid coffee, chlorinated water and smoking (or secondhand smoke).

Alcohol must also be avoided, as it is a very common cause of pancreatitis. The diet should be low in the harmful fats such as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats found in packaged and fast foods. Foods high in saturated fat such as dairy products and red meat should also be restricted.

Enzyme Support

The most important nutritional supplements are supplemental enzymes. Some European studies show that long-term enzyme supplementation actually helps to increase the body’s own pancreatic reserve of enzymes.

I prefer microbial-derived enzymes, also called plant enzymes, to be taken with and between meals. Specifically, a full-spectrum enzyme formula should be taken with meals to help ensure the proper digestion of food.

For acute and chronic inflammation, the use of proteolytic enzymes, which break down proteins, can be quite helpful to reduce pain and inflammation. Placebo-controlled studies have verified the use of proteolytic enzymes for the treatment of pancreatic pain. Proteolytic enzymes are best taken between meals for inflammatory conditions.

Herbs and Homeopathy

Herbs that are historically used for the prevention and treatment of pancreatitis for their anti-inflammatory and tissue-healing effects include licorice root, aloe vera, bromelain and especially turmeric a powerful anti-inflammatory. Specific therapy from a Chinese herbalist is also recommended.

Homeopathic remedies can also be very useful to help relieve symptoms and stimulate healing. Arsenicum album is good when there is burning pain and nausea/vomiting with small amounts of food and drink. There is some relief from warm drinks. Phosphorous is good for burning pains where the individual desires ice cold drinks. A 30C potency can be taken every two hours for relief of symptoms.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamin and mineral supplements are important for those with chronic pancreatitis because malabsorption leads to nutritional deficiencies. I recommend a high potency multivitamin that does not contain iron. Also, an extra 400 micrograms of chromium is prudent to support blood sugar balance. I also recommend daily intake of N-acetylcysteine, 1,000 to 1,500 milligrams; natural vitamin E, 400 IU; vitamin A, 5,000 IU; vitamin C, 1,000 mg; and alpha lipoic acid, 200 mg. Spirulina is also an excellent supplement for general nutritional support and cleansing. Check your local health food store for product availability.

For the most part, pancreatitis is the result of diet and lifestyle imbalances. Natural therapies give you the tools to prevent and improve this painful disease. By focusing on an enzyme-rich diet and with the use of specific herbal and nutritional supplements as well as hydrotherapy, one can make remarkable progress.

Hydrotherapy Helper

This is a powerful therapy used to treat both acute and chronic pancreatitis. With this treatment, you have someone alternate hot and cold towels over the abdomen and back. It is best done with an assistant.

  1. Person lies in bed on his/her back. Assistant covers the bared chest and abdomen with two towels that have been placed in hot water and wrung out. Towels should be hot, though tolerable. Place a small section of the towel on the skin first to make sure it isn’t too hot.
  2. Cover the hot towels with a dry towel.
  3. Cover with blankets to avoid a chill. Leave the towels on for five minutes.
  4. After five minutes remove the hot towels and replace with the single thickness of a thin towel that has been run under cold water and then wrung out (some moisture left in towel).
  5. Place the cold towel on the bared chest and abdomen. Cover with a dry towel and blankets. Leave on for 10 minutes. Towel should be warm after 10 minutes. If not, leave it on longer or do not make the towel so cold and wet next time.
  6. Take cold towel off and have person turn over and lay on stomach. Repeat the same procedure on the back: five minutes of hot towels followed by 10 minutes of a thin, cold towel.

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