The pancreas is a gland that lies crosswise deep in the abdomen between the stomach and the spine. The pancreas serves two purposes – Endocrine and Exocrine functions:
The endocrine function allows for the production of insulin, which is imperative for the metabolism and regulation of blood glucose (the thing that keeps you from being diabetic). The exocrine component aids in the digestion of food. Pancreatic juices filled with important enzymes flow into the small intestine and break down the carbohydrates, proteins and fats to allow absorption into the body.
Problems with the pancreas usually come down to two things – pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas where the enzymes that help digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates start digesting the pancreas. There are two types of pancreatitis: acute and chronic. Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly lasts a short amount of time (usually no more than 2 days) and heals itself. Whereas, chronic pancreatitis pain lasts for a long time and results in the inability to digest fat and damages insulin production. Symptoms for both may include: sever pain and swelling in upper abdomen, jaundice, fever, sweating, nausea, and rapid pulse. Causes for acute pancreatitis may include gall stones, and drinking too much alcohol. Usual causes for chronic pancreatitis are alcohol abuse and excess iron in the blood.
Quite simply, pancreatitis refers to inflammation of the pancreas; usually marked by abdominal pain. The primary causes are identified in the medical community as alcohol, gallstones (by virtue of the shared biliary tree), infection, and certain medications such as diuretics.
There are strong indications that a major factor in chronic non-acute pancreatitis is the stress put on the pancreas through a diet high in cooked and processed foods — a diet deficient in natural or supplemented enzymes.
Research done on rats and chickens that were fed cooked foods revealed that the pancreas enlarged to handle the extra burden of the enzyme-deficient diet. In other words, the pancreas will enlarge over time when called upon to compensate for a diet high in enzyme deficient foods. nimals such as cattle, goats, deer, and sheep get along with a pancreas about a third as large as the human pancreas because of their raw food diet. However, when these animals are fed heat-processed, enzyme-free food, their pancreas enlarges up to three times the normal size than when fed on a raw plant diet. Make no mistake; long-term, non-acute pancreatitis is a condition that affects virtually every person living on a modern diet — given enough time.
Just like pancreatitis, the incidence of pancreatic cancer is rising dramatically in the developed world. Pancreatic Cancer is a very deadly form of cancer. Because it is generally diagnosed late this cancer is very tough to treat. Pancreatic cancer is one of the few cancers for which survival has not improved substantially over nearly 40 years.
Pancreatic cancer is a leading cause of cancer death largely because there are no detection tools to diagnose the disease in its early stages when surgical removal of the tumor is still possible. Early pancreatic cancers cause few symptoms, most of which are vague. Because signs and symptoms of most pancreatic cancer may be mistaken for less-serious digestive problems, the disease is rarely detected before it has spread to nearby tissues or distant organs through the bloodstream or lymphatic system.
According to WebMD, symptoms that may arise, in typical order of occurrence, include:
- Significant weight loss accompanied by abdominal pain – the most likely warning signs.
- Vague but gradually worsening abdominal pain that may decrease when leaning forward and increase when lying down. Pain is often severe at night and may radiate to the lower back.
- Digestive or bowel complaints such as diarrhea, constipation, gas pains, bloating, or belching.
- Nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.
- Jaundice, which is usually painless and is indicated by yellowish discoloration of the skin and eye whites, very dark urine, and light-colored stools.
- Sudden onset of glucose tolerance disorder, such as diabetes.
- Black or bloody stool, indicating bleeding from the digestive tract.
- Overall weakness.
- Enlarged liver and gallbladder.
- Clay- or light-colored stools.
- Bronze urine color.
- Blood clots in the legs.
Research from Johns Hopkins points to the fact that the incidence of pancreatic cancer is 50 – 90% higher in African Americans than in any other racial group in the United States. Not only is pancreatic cancer more common among African Americans, but African Americans also have the poorest prognosis of any racial group because they often are diagnosed with advanced, and therefore, inoperable cancer. African Americans also are less likely to receive surgery than any other racial group in the United States.
Many studies have been conducted to determine why there is an increased risk of pancreatic cancer among African Americans. These studies suggest that environmental and socioeconomic factors may be important. Cigarette smoking, which causes about 25% of pancreatic cancer, is more common among African Americans and therefore may partially explain why pancreatic cancer is more common in African Americans. Other risk factors for pancreatic cancer that are more common in African Americans include diabetes mellitus, pancreatitis, and being overweight.
Treatment of pancreatic cancer is especially difficult because the location of the pancreas means that tumors tend to spread rapidly to highly innervated (rich in nerves) regions of the back and spine.
The steps for taking care of your pancreas are fairly simple.
Chronic pancreatitis: Long-term inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) has been linked to cancer of the pancreas. In fact, long-term, non-acute inflammation of the pancreas may be the single leading cause of pancreatic cancer.
Diabetes: Diabetes is not only a symptom of pancreatic cancer, but long-standing Type 1 diabetes significantly increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Obesity: Obesity also significantly increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Alcohol: Consume alcohol only in moderation as even small quantities of alcohol inflame the pancreas, not to mention the liver.
Smoking: Statistically, smoking doubles the risk of pancreatic cancer. It has been estimated that as many as one in four cases of pancreatic cancer are the direct result of smoking cigarettes. The risk of pancreatic cancer drops close to normal in people who quit smoking.
Diets high in meats, cholesterol, fried foods, and nitrosamines increase the risk of both pancreatic cancer and pancreatitis, while diets high in raw fruits and vegetables reduce risk. A study, from the World Cancer Research Fund, found eating processed meats like bacon and sausage could increase your risk for deadly pancreatic cancer. For every piece of sausage or two strips of bacon a person eats every day, there’s a 19 percent rise in risk for pancreatic cancer, the study found. The bottom line is that a Mediterranean diet is "pancreas friendly".
Now that we have a basic understanding of the pancreas, there are a few things we can do to help a healthy pancreas stay that way: Keep your weight in the desirable range; Don’t overload your body with sugar; Get some exercise; and Limit your alcohol consumption.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.
Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics.
For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com