Simone Gabbay, RNCP
A healthy pancreas works quietly--but if you ignore it, pancreatitis can result. Paying attention now, rather than later, will help you avoid painful pancreatic cries for help. On the stage of life, it is often the back-stage players who do most of the work, unnoticed, until something goes wrong.
A healthy pancreas works quietly–but if you ignore it, pancreatitis can result. Paying attention now, rather than later, will help you avoid painful pancreatic cries for help.
On the stage of life, it is often the back-stage players who do most of the work, unnoticed, until something goes wrong. Only then do we look behind the curtain to see what’s going on.
The pancreas is such a back-stage player. Located behind the stomach, close to the duodenum, the pancreas churns out the digestive enzymes necessary to break down the foods that we eat. Until it gives us discomfort, we seldom pay much attention to this important digestive organ.
An uncared for pancreas can develop acute pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. Upper abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, sometimes accompanied by fever and an increased pulse rate, are typical symptoms. The attack may be experienced as a sudden, intense pain or it may begin gradually during a meal and then grow worse with additional food intake. In the diagnosis of pancreatitis, physicians check for high levels of the enzyme amylase in the blood, as well as for changes in electrolyte balance.
Most cases of acute pancreatitis are due to excessive alcohol intake or to gallstones obstructing the pancreatic duct. Reactions to prescription drugs, for instance to diuretics, can also result in pancreatitis. Sometimes the cause is genetic and in about 15 percent of cases, the cause is unknown. It is important to note that pancreatitis can also occur as a component of a more complex illness, such as chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia.
Chronic pancreatitis, which sometimes develops following an acute attack, is most often due to alcohol abuse. Chronic pancreatitis often leads to malnutrition and weight loss. Enzyme secretion is impaired, resulting in poor digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Persons with this condition are also at risk of developing diabetes if the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas have been damaged. Research has shown that the most effective treatment for acute pancreatitis is abstaining from solid foods for several days. If the attack is severe and the patient is hospitalized, fluids are administered intravenously. The best way to prevent future attacks and the development of chronic pancreatitis is to avoid alcohol and to eat a natural, whole-foods diet low in hydrogenated fats and high in raw vegetables and fruits.
Breaking Down the Problem
Plant enzymes that naturally occur in all fresh and raw foods greatly facilitate the digestion and assimilation of nutrients in the body. When raw foods are taken into the mouth, the chewing action ruptures their cell walls and releases the plant enzymes. These enzymes immediately initiate digestion. Raw foods possess the exact amount and types of enzymes necessary for their digestion. Thus, enzymes taken into the body with raw foods greatly reduce the demand placed on the pancreas to produce its own digestive enzymes.
The overconsumption of cooked and processed foods, which are devoid of enzymes, places a great strain on the pancreas and is likely to be a contributing factor in the development of pancreatitis.
Plant enzymes (preferred by vegetarians) and digestive enzyme pre- parations (made with pancreatic enzymes of animal origin) in supplement form are available in health food stores. For those recovering from pancreatitis, a high-quality full-spectrum enzyme supplement is essential to restoring digestive health and proper nutrient absorption. Protease to break down protein, lipase to break down fats and amylase to break down carbohydrates must all be present in adequate amounts.
Many enzyme supplements also contain betaine hydrochloride, which initiates protein digestion in the stomach. The proper digestion of protein into amino acids is most important, since it enables the body to make new protein cells from the amino acids. Most adults over the age of 35 do not produce adequate hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Illness and mental and emotional stress contribute to low output of hydrochloric acid. This perpetuates a cycle of poor health due to lack of available protein in the body. Ensuring good protein digestion with supplemental betaine hydrochloride and proteolytic enzymes is essential if this cycle is to be broken.
In the intestinal tract, it is important to recolonize the beneficial bacteria that are normal residents of a healthy gut. Probiotic formulations, which supply a variety of strains of lactic-acid bacteria, including lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium bifidus can be found in the refrigerated section of health food stores. The consumption of lactic-acid fermented milk products, such as yogurt or kefir, as well as unpasteurized lacto-fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut, also helps to re-establish healthy intestinal flora, important for the proper assimilation of nutrients.
Supplementing the diet with a good source of essential fatty acids, such as evening primrose or flax seed oil, will aid fat metabolism, which is often compromised when pancreatic activity is impaired. A lecithin supplement is also recommended, since it helps to emulsify fats.
The healthy pancreas also regulates blood sugar metabolism through the release of the hormone insulin. Insulin facilitates the transport of blood sugar (glucose) to the cells. The cells need glucose for energy. If the diet is high in refined carbohydrates, which flood the blood stream with sugar, the pancreas is stressed because it must continuously respond to severe fluctuations in glucose levels. To avoid such strain on the pancreas, it is important to stay away from refined sugar and refined white flour, white rice and pasta, as well as processed foods which contain them. A high-fibre, whole-foods diet is preferable. It slows the rate of food passage through the intestinal tract and results in a more gradual release of glucose into the blood stream.
It is also important to chew all foods properly. Chewing allows the starch-splitting enzyme ptyalin, contained in saliva, to initiate the process of digestion. Chewing also increases the surface area of the food as it is broken down into smaller particles, making more of the food accessible to digestive juices. The better we chew our food, the less work the digestive system has in breaking it down further.
Lifestyle changes which help to reduce stress, as well as to improve stress response, are also important. The digestive system is highly susceptible to disruption by emotional upsets and to corresponding influences from the endocrine and nervous systems. Regular physical exercise, massage and relaxation methods can all help to optimize digestive function and to keep the pancreas strong and healthy.