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Pancreatic insufficiency occurs when the pancreas does not secrete enough chemicals and digestive enzymes for normal digestion to occur.
When pancreatic insufficiency is severe, malabsorption (impaired absorption of nutrients by the intestines) may result, leading to deficiencies of essential nutrients and the occurrence of loose stools containing unabsorbed fat (steatorrhea).
Severe pancreatic insufficiency occurs in cystic fibrosis, chronic pancreatitis, and surgeries of the gastrointestinal system in which portions of the stomach or pancreas are removed. Certain gastrointestinal diseases, such as stomach ulcers,1celiac disease,2 and Crohn’s disease,3 and autoimmune disorders, such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE),4, 5, 6 may contribute to the development of pancreatic insufficiency. Mild forms of pancreatic insufficiency are often difficult to diagnose, and there is controversy among researchers regarding whether milder forms of pancreatic insufficiency need treatment.
Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas that reduces the function of the pancreas, causing pancreatic insufficiency, malabsorption, and diabetes.7 Acute pancreatitis is usually a temporary condition and can be caused by gallstones, excessive alcohol consumption, high blood triglycerides, abdominal injury, and other diseases, and by certain medications and poisons.8 Chronic pancreatitis is a slow, silent process that gradually destroys the pancreas and is most often caused by excessive alcohol consumption.
People with pancreatic insufficiency may have excess oil in the stool (steatorrhea), which is associated with symptoms of pale, foul-smelling, bulky stools that stick to the side of the toilet bowl or are difficult to flush, oil droplets floating in the toilet bowl after bowel movements, and abdominal discomfort, gas, and bloating. People with pancreatic insufficiency may also have bone pain, muscle cramps, night blindness, and easy bruising.
Since alcoholism is one known cause of pancreatitis, total abstinence from alcohol is generally recommended to people with this disease.9 In a study of alcoholic chronic pancreatitis patients, pancreatic function declined to a greater degree in those who continued to drink alcohol.10 Another study found that abstinence from alcohol had a significant long-term beneficial effect on some of the problems associated with chronic pancreatitis.11
Cigarette smoking decreases pancreatic secretion12 and increases the risk of pancreatitis13 and pancreatic cancer,14 providing yet another reason to quit smoking.
In a large international study, the major risk factors for early death in a group of patients with chronic alcoholic and nonalcoholic pancreatitis included smoking and drinking alcohol.15
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The information presented by Healthnotes is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires December 2017.