Anyone who’s familiar with pancreatitis knows how serious it can be. Acute pancreatitis episodes frequently require urgent medical attention and hospital care. But can diet play a role in treatment and recovery? Historically, the belief was eating food will worsen the symptoms by overworking an already inflamed pancreas. While most cases of pancreatitis resolve quickly with minor dietary restrictions, some require more involved nutritional intervention, including the use of specialized tube feedings that are easily digested and absorbed, such as those that are semi-elemental and peptide-based.
What is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis means inflammation of the pancreas, a vital organ located in the upper abdomen that produces digestive enzymes and important hormones (such as insulin, for regulating blood sugar).
There are different forms of pancreatitis and they are treated according to their severity. These include mild acute, severe acute and chronic pancreatitis. Mild acute pancreatitis is characterized by short, sudden bouts of inflammation that is easily resolved through medical and nutritional management. Severe acute pancreatitis may require more aggressive medical intervention and specialized nutritional support to help heal the pancreas and resolve the inflammation. Chronic pancreatitis consists of continuing inflammation and irreversible damage to the organ, which requires medical management and ongoing nutritional intervention that is largely driven by severity of organ damage and nutritional status.
What you choose to eat affects the pancreas because it’s involved in the digestive process. The most common cause of acute pancreatitis is gallstones, which can block the pancreatic duct, and comprise 40% of cases. With chronic pancreatitis, diet continues to play a significant role as flare-ups recur over time. Drinking excessive alcohol is the most common cause of chronic pancreatitis, though damage to the organ can also be the result of a past attack of acute pancreatitis.
What are the warning signs of pancreatitis?
Signs of an acute attack:
- Upper abdominal pain radiating to lower back
- Pain that worsens when eating
- Tender or swollen abdomen
- Nausea, vomiting
- Increased heart rate
Chronic pancreatitis symptoms include the above, plus more serious signs:
- Persistent abdominal and back pain
- Foamy diarrhea with visible oil droplets
- Diabetes (if insulin-producing cells are damaged due to inflammation)
- Epigastric (upper abdomen) tenderness
- Weight loss
Treating Pancreatitis with Nutrition
Evidence suggests that nutritional intervention for acute pancreatitis includes starting with an oral diet of clear liquids and advancing to a balanced low fat and then regular diet, as tolerated. The early use of nutrition supports the good bacteria in the gut and the immune system. If an oral diet is not tolerated, specialized tube feedings may be necessary for those with severe acute or chronic pancreatitis.
However, for those with chronic pancreatitis, getting the energy and nutrition they need can be challenging for multiple reasons:
- Hormones and enzymes produced by the pancreas may no longer be able to assist in the digestion and absorption process.
- Delayed stomach emptying may cause you to feel full shortly after eating and reduce appetite.
- Your metabolism may increase, causing you to burn more calories and increase your baseline nutrition needs.
For those struggling to meet their nutritional needs through oral diet alone, healthcare providers may recommend specialized tube feedings. These liquid formulas that are infused through a feeding tube or taken orally may consist of specialized, easily absorbed pre-digested nutrients, also called semi-elemental peptide-based diets.
How long does pancreatitis take to heal?
Most acute pancreatitis cases last a few days and people fully recover. More severe cases may take several weeks or months to run its course. Chronic pancreatitis is longer term in nature. Once the pancreas is severely damaged it no longer functions the way it should in the digestive process, and ongoing nutrition and medical support is required to promote proper food digestion and blood sugar regulation.
The best thing you can do to prevent pancreatitis is to maintain a healthy lifestyle, which includes:
- Balanced diet with moderate to low fat intake
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Avoid alcohol
- Exercise regularly
- Stop smoking
Bottom line: Pancreatitis can be a painful experience. Treating pancreatitis with nutrition as early as possible, whether that’s through your regular diet, tube feeding, or a combination of both, will support your recovery and may help prevent further pancreatitis attacks. Be sure to follow your doctor or dietitian’s advice and follow your prescribed treatment.