Nutritional and Supplemental Treatment for Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis is an acute or chronic inflammation of your pancreas. In both cases, it’s a painful condition that requires medical attention. Eating a pancreas-healthy diet, taking supplements, and limiting or avoiding alcohol are some ways pancreatitis may be avoided or treated.
How nutrition and supplements treat pancreatitis
As with any medical procedure, results will vary from patient to patient depending on age, genetics, general health, condition severity, follow-up care, and environmental factors. The following nutritional treatments may present contraindications with one another, and/or with other medical conditions. Always consult your health care professional before deciding which treatment to try first.
Nutrition & fasting
As alcohol abuse is the commonest cause of chronic pancreatitis and the second-most common cause of acute pancreatitis2, the first step is to stop drinking it.
Alcohol contains toxic chemicals called metabolites (acetaldehyde, FAEEs, and ROS), that damage the pancreas on a cellular level. When alcohol alters the pancreas’ ability to create alcohol-metabolizing enzymes, accumulation of these harmful metabolites occurs and tissue damage is the result. In time, this damage becomes irreversible.
If alcohol caused your pancreas damage, your provider will recommend you enter an alcohol addiction treatment program.
Fasting (not eating for a few days) lightens the digestive burden on your pancreas; once the inflammation is under control, you’ll drink clear liquids and light, bland foods.
Never fast or restrict your diet without consulting your medical provider. You should also avoid fad diets or trendy “detoxes” without approval from your healthcare provider.
A well-balanced diet rich in fresh fruits, whole grains, and vegetables that excludes sugar, alcohol, processed and high-fat foods is a strong way of avoiding many pancreatic disorders.
You should avoid fatty and fried foods, as well as full-fat dairy products like whole milk. High-fat diets raise your body’s triglyceride levels (the amount of fat in your bloodstream) and increase your risk of getting gallstones and pancreatitis.
Many foods have shown effectiveness in promoting pancreas health. These include:
- cruciferous veggies: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage are full of antioxidants that promote strong immune function and may protect you from pancreatic tumors
- lemons, limes, and kiwi: encourage release of digestive enzymes from your pancreas
- fermented foods: sauerkraut, soy sauce, kefir, and other fermented foods are full of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) that may improve your gut health and reduce pancreatitis symptoms; recent studies also show that ingesting probiotics regularly may help prevent pancreatic cancer1
- lean meats, beans, lentils, clear soups, dairy alternatives like flax, soy, or almond milk: these are much easier for your pancreas to digest
- spinach, blueberries, cherries, whole grains: antioxidant-rich foods that fight free radicals and are easily digested
- cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, hummus: easily digested and packed with healthy vitamins like C, A, and K (leaving the skin on the cucumbers will give you more vitamins)
- curcumin has been shown to reduce tissue injury by inhibiting cancer activating protein AP-1 and activating trypsin, an enzyme that helps break down protein3
Avoid foods that are very fatty, contain lots of oils, or are very sugary, as these can be difficult to digest and strain your digestive system. They include:
- organ meats: liver, heart, and gizzard have many vitamins, but are full of fat and can be difficult to digest
- fiber-rich foods: too much fiber slows digestion, making supplements less effective
- fried foods: can trigger pancreatitis flare-ups or worsen your existing condition
- potato chips
- margarine and butter
- full-fat dairy
- pastries and other desserts with added sugar
- sugary beverages like soda or lemonade
- products made from refined flour: cake, cupcakes, and white bread can cause spikes in your insulin, making digestion difficult and painful
Eating six to eat small meals per day is advisable, as this makes digestion easier. Choosing MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides such as coconut oil) over vegetable or corn oil is also healthier and will aid digestion.
If you’re obese or overweight and want to lose weight, always choose a safe, healthy method that involves steady exercise and a balanced diet. Your medical provider or nutritionist can help create a plan that’ll benefit your health without putting you at risk of health complications.
Enzyme therapy, often called PERT (pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy) requires taking supplements created from all-natural porcine (pig-based) pancreas material: pancrelipase derived from pig pancreatic glands, and these crucial enzymes:
- amylase: aids in carbohydrate digestion
- trypsin: aids in digestion of proteins
- lipase: aids in the digestion of fats
- protease: breaks down protein molecules
While sold under different brand names (Creon, Pancreaze, Viokace, Pertzye, Ultresa, and Zenpep) these supplements are essentially identical in composition and function.
When you ingest these supplements with food (typically before you eat), they supply your digestive system with the enzymes it needs to break down and process fats, proteins, and carbohydrates and to take nutrition from them.
Many people with pancreas disorders experience abdominal pain, fat in their stool, duct blockages, and unwanted weight loss because their bodies can’t properly digest these substances, so they pass through the digestive system painfully and their bodies aren’t breaking down and absorbing the nutrients.
Enzyme supplements actually mix with the food you eat, acting as surrogate pancreatic juices that your pancreas can no longer produce on its own.
You’ll take over-the-counter antacids like Tums or Rolaids as well, so your stomach can’t break down these essential enzymes before they start working. A recent study shows that high doses of these enzymes, especially in the enteric-coated form, reduced fecal fat excretion and abdominal pain without any significant side effects2.
Who provides this type of treatment?
Most medical providers can recommend a pancreas-healthy diet and supplement schedule, including primary care physicians, licensed nutritionists, gastroenterologists, naturopathic providers, and a number of other specialists. If your current provider doesn’t offer this type of treatment, ask for a referral or research reputable providers online.
What are the potential side effects?
Side effects of supplements and dietary changes are typically mild or non-existent. Enzyme supplements can cause abdominal pain and gas, and may increase blood uric acid levels, which can cause painful swelling of joints. Patients who are allergic may experience trouble breathing, skin rashes, or lip swelling.
Certain minerals and medications affect your ability to consume certain foods, like:
- tyramine-rich foods: fermented foods like sauerkraut and soy sauce, smoked meats, aged cheeses, and draft beers may raise blood pressure and can interact with drugs used for Parkinson’s disease and antidepressant medications
- blood-thinning drugs like warfarin: may interact with foods rich in vitamin K, such as leafy green vegetables
Your provider can offer detailed recommendations based on your specific case and medical history. Always tell your provider about all medical conditions and medications before beginning your treatment.
Reserve your appointment
Pancreatitis painfully affects your ability to digest food and degenerates your pancreas. Quitting alcohol, eating a pancreas-healthy diet, and taking enzyme supplements exactly as directed can help prevent or manage your pancreatitis.
1. Singhal, Barkha, et al. “Role of Probiotics in Pancreatic Cancer Prevention: The Prospects and Challenges.” Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology, vol. 07, no. 11, Nov. 2016, pp. 468–500., doi:10.4236/abb.2016.711045.
2. Wilcox, C. Mel. “Exam 2: Alcohol and Smoking as Risk Factors in an Epidemiology Study of Patients With Chronic Pancreatitis.” Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, vol. 9, no. 3, 2011, doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2011.01.009.
3. Gulcubuk A, Haktanir D, Cakiris A, Ustek D, Guzel O, Erturk M, Karabagli M, Akyazi I, Cicekci H, Altunatmaz K, Uzun H, Ates K. Effects of curcumin on proinflammatory cytokines and tissue injury in the early and late phases of experimental acute pancreatitis. Pancreatology. 2013 Jul-Aug;13(4):347-54. doi: 10.1016/j.pan.2013.05.005. Epub 2013 May 21.
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