Pancreatitis and alcohol have long been related. Pancreatitis is a condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. This condition often causes a great deal of pain for several days at a time. While most pancreatitis episodes can heal quickly, 20% are severe and require hospitalization.

The Pancreas

The pancreas is an organ, located in the lower stomach. The pancreas is primarily responsible for digestion of foods. It helps to digest food by releasing special enzymes (digestive juices) into the stomach and regulating blood sugar levels.

Link Between Pancreatitis and Alcohol

There is a strong link between pancreatitis and alcohol. Alcohol is the second leading cause of pancreatitis. The reason for the link was found in a study at the University of Liverpool.[1] According to the study, alcohol stimulates the pancreas, causing it to produce fatty acids. The fatty acids impede the pancreas and destroy its cells. The result is inflammation, damage, pain, and a loss of digestive function.


The most common symptom of pancreatitis is a sharp, dull or growing pain in the upper to mid abdomen. After drinking alcohol, pancreatitis can set in a few hours to several days after consumption. Episodes may last several days. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, fever, back pain, and other symptoms.

Acute and Chronic Pancreatitis

Single isolated pancreatitis attacks is considered acute pancreatitis. Recovery typically takes a few days and the prognossis for full recovery is good if alcohol, and fatty and processed foods are abstained from. If the recovery takes weeks, there may be more long term damage. If the acute pancreatitis is severe or often enough, the pancreas can be peranently damaged. This is a condition called chronic pancreatitis. The symptoms of chronic pancreatitis are similar to acute but are unable to fully recover from or heal from them.


In some cases of pancreatitis and alcohol, the pancreas’ digestive juices (enzymes) are released into the blood. In these cases it is possible for other organs to be damaged. Damage can often be severe and leave kidneys or lungs without any ability to function. One person dies for every four that develop severe acute pancreatitis.

Other complications include diabetes, pseudocysts and pancreatic cancer.


For heavy drinkers, 80% develop pancreatitis after 10 or more years. Pancreatitis is more common among men than women, especially white males.


The most important thing that can be done is to avoid consuming anything that irritates the pancreas. Avoid drinking, processed foods (eat whole grain carbohydrates), fats and spicy foods. Eat only foods that do not put strain on your pancreas. In severe cases of acute pancreatitis hospitalization is necessary. The pancreas cannot handle food or water until it is healed and hospitals can provide nutrition through an IV.[2]

[1] Criddle DN, Raraty MGT, Neoptolemos JP, Tepikin AV, Petersen OH, Sutton R. Ethanol toxicity in pancreatic acinar cells: Mediation by nonoxidative fatty acid metabolites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2004;101(29):10738-10743. doi:10.1073/pnas.0403431101.
[2] Escott-Stump S. Nutrition and Diagnosis-Related Care, 7th ed. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2002, 497