Above: Location of the pacreas (yellow), in relation to the liver (red), galbladder (green), and duodenum (first section of the small intestine, pink) (ttsz, iStockphoto)

Have you ever seen a person become emotional, throw up, or even lose consciousness after they have drank too much? Maybe they also had trouble seeing. Or they may have blacked out (lost their memory). These are some of the temporary effects of alcohol abuse. They can happen any time you drink too much.

Some people regularly drink too much alcohol over long periods of time. This puts them at risk for permanent effects of alcohol abuse. For example, you may already know that too much alcohol can eventually destroy your liver. But alcohol can also affect another important organ: the pancreas.

Did You Know?“Alcohol abuse” describes the behaviour of a person who regularly drinks so much that they act dangerously or neglect their responsibilities.

What does the pancreas do?

The pancreas has two important roles: it helps with digestion and with maintaining blood sugar levels. When you eat food, exocrine cells in your pancreas release digestive enzymes, like trypsin. Digestive enzymes move energy and nutrients from your food into your body. Endocrine cells in your pancreas also release hormones, such as insulin. Insulin helps maintain blood glucose levels.

In order to work properly, the pancreas needs to get certain nutrients from the bloodstream. For example, if it doesn’t get enough vitamin C, the pancreas will have trouble producing enzymes and hormones.

Did You Know? “Alcoholism” refers to prolonged alcohol abuse that interferes with a person’s physical or mental health. Alcoholism also affects a person’s ability to fulfill their responsibilities.

How does alcohol affect the pancreas?

Without the right vitamins, the pancreas can become inflamed. Inflammation of the pancreas is called pancreatitis. Symptoms of pancreatitis include severe abdominal pain, jaundice, fever, indigestion, nausea, and vomiting.

People with pancreatitis often don’t have enough water-soluble vitamins and fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamins B1, B7, and C are examples of water-soluble vitamins. Vitamins D, E, and K are examples of fat-soluble vitamins. Alcohol can prevent the pancreas from absorbing some of these vitamins.

Did You Know? Not getting enough of vitamins B1 and B7 can cause a disorder called biotin-thiamine-responsive basal ganglia disease. It’s a nervous system disorder that can affect movement and cause facial paralysis.

Chronic pancreatitis and cancer

Pancreatitis can be either acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis happens quickly and only lasts for a short period of time. Chronic pancreatitis develops and lasts over a long period of time.

Chronic pancreatitis can cause tissue damage and scarring of the pancreas. In turn, this damage can lead to digestive problems and malnutrition. It can also cause diabetes, and pancreatic cancer.

Alcohol can also cause pancreatic cells to release the wrong enzymes at the wrong times. For example, alcohol can cause zymogens to be activated too soon. Zymogens help produce other enzymes in the pancreas. Eventually, most of these enzymes get released in the stomach as digestive enzymes. But if they get transformed into digestive enzymes too early, while they’re still in the pancreas, they can cause tissue damage.

Did You Know? Ninety-five per cent of pancreatic cancers start in exocrine cells. Those are cells that produce digestive enzymes.

How much is too much?

Just how much alcohol would you have to drink in order to be at risk for pancreatitis? Well, this condition most often affects people who suffer from alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Pancreatitis caused by long-term alcohol abuse takes about 10 years to develop.

So keep your pancreas healthy and safe by always drinking alcohol in moderation, if you drink it at all. To avoid long-term damage, anyone suffering from alcohol abuse or alcoholism should ask their doctor about options. Teens living in Canada can also get advice on alcohol-related problems from Kids Help Phone.

This article was updated by Let's Talk Science staff on 2016-10-12 to improve readability by reducing the reading grade level.

Learn More!

About alcohol abuse:

Alcohol (2014)
Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse

Youth and Alcohol (2014)
Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse

Addictions treatment helplines in Canada
Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

About the pancreas:

What is the pancreas?
Pancreatic Cancer Canada

Pancreatitis
University of Maryland Medical Center

Alcohol and pancreatitis
Drink Aware

About Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic Cancer Canada

About pancreatic cancer:

About scientific research on alcohol and the pancreas:

Alcohol-related Pancreatitis (2016)
NICE Clinical Guidelines, No. 100, U.S. National Library of Medicine

Uptake of ascorbic acid by pancreatic acinar cells is negatively impacted by chronic alcohol exposure (2016)
V.S. Subramanian, P. Srinivasan & H.M. Said, American Journal of Physiology - Cell Physiology
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Sakina Bano Mendha

I am a Student currently enrolled doing my biology undergraduate studies from Montreal, Canada. I like playing badminton and doing Calligraphy. Skills: Public speaking, writing, research, teamwork. 

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