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Alcohol's effects on the pancreas

How does alcohol affect the pancreas?

Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can lead to pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion. Pancreatitis can be very painful. There are two types of pancreatisis: acute pancreatisis and chronic pancreatisis.


Acute pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly and usually gets better within a few days. Acute pancreatitis can cause pain in the stomach area (abdomen), just behind the ribs and spreading through the back, as well as nausea, vomiting and fever.


Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis is when the pancreas becomes inflamed and stays that way, causing it to stop working properly.

Symptoms of pancreatitis include:

  • Recurring, severe pain behind the ribs and through the back
  • Weight loss,
  • Greasy, foul-smelling faeces (bowel motions)

Chronic (long lasting) pancreatitis is hard to treat and may cause complications that can be life threatening, such pancreatic cancer. A third of people with pancreatitis develop type 2 diabetes.


What can I do to reduce my risk?

 Cut down or give up alcohol: Stay below the low-risk drinking level to avoid damaging your pancreas. Drinking above the low risk level also increases your risk of developing diabetes.

If you already have pancreatitis, giving up alcohol can slow down the development of the disease and reduce its painful symptoms. The effects of alcoholic pancreatitis can be managed, but not easily reversed.


 Alcohol and diabetes

Alcohol can interfere with the body’s ability to keep your blood sugar level stable. This is because alcohol affects both the liver and the pancreas, which help to regulate blood sugar.

Different types of alcoholic drink have different levels of carbohydrates, though, and people can be affected in different ways, so it’s important to check your blood regularly.

Alcohol can prevent the liver from producing glucose, which can lead to dangerously low blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia). One problem with becoming hypoglycaemic when you have been drinking is it may go unnoticed and untreated by the people around you, because the symptoms of low blood sugar are similar to drunkenness. You may also not manage your diabetes well when your judgement, coordination and self-control are affected by alcohol.


Managing alcohol if you are diabetic


Avoid alcohol or stay within low-risk drinking guidelines: Drinking can make it more difficult to keep your blood sugar at a healthy level.

  • Alcohol lowers your blood sugar but at the same time you might also be more inclined to snack.
  • You may become careless about counting carbs and checking and correcting your blood sugar when you are under the influence.  

Staying within the low-risk drinking guidelines can help to avoid these problems.

Control your drinking: Drink alcohol only with food and never on an empty stomach. Drink slowly and dilute spirits with plenty of diet soft drinks. Avoid sugary drinks like cocktails, sweet wines or cordials, as it can be hard to know the carb content and they can raise your blood sugar level very fast.

 Manage your blood sugar while drinking:  Check your blood sugar levels while you are drinking and before you go to sleep, to avoid problems with the fluctuations in blood sugar that alcohol can cause.

Let people know you have diabetes: Make sure the people you are with know the symptoms of low blood sugar such as confusion, slurred speech and drowsiness, so they don’t think you are drunk. Wear a piece of medical alert jewellery that says you have diabetes, in case you do pass out and make sure to bring your emergency kit and some sugars with you.

Have a snack before you go to bed: Your blood sugar may drop after drinking alcohol, so it's a good idea to have some carbohydrates before you go to bed.

Talk to your GP or the care team at the hospital: Ask about the best ways to keep safe and control your blood sugar when you drink alcohol.

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