Pancreatic Insufficiency | Digestive Health | Loyola Medicine

Pancreatic Insufficiency

Overview and Facts about Pancreatic Insufficiency

With pancreatic insufficiency, your pancreas does not work as it should. Normally, your pancreas produces important enzymes for your digestive health, allowing you to absorb nutrients and break down the food you eat. Someone with pancreatic insufficiency will not have enough of these enzymes, preventing them from properly digesting things like carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

Symptoms and Signs of Pancreatic Insufficiency

Pancreatic insufficiency can closely resemble other digestive health issues, including celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Greasy or oily stools that float and smell bad (steatorrhea)
  • Gas
  • Malnutrition or weight loss
  • Stomach pain

Generally, these symptoms will worsen as your pancreatic function decreases. You’ll notice them the most when your pancreatic function drops to 5 to 10 percent of the normal function.

Causes and Risk Factors of Pancreatic Insufficiency

There are several conditions that can contribute to the development of pancreatic insufficiency. These can include:

While you can’t control some of these risk factors, you can reduce your risk for pancreatitis by lowering your alcohol intake, reducing fatty food intake and quitting smoking.

Tests and Diagnosis of Pancreatic Insufficiency

There are three main tests to diagnose pancreatic insufficiency:

  • Direct pancreatic function test, in which your doctor will insert a tube into your small intestine to directly collect the secretions from your pancreas. This is considered the most accurate test for pancreatic insufficiency.
  • Fecal elastase test, in which your doctor will measure the amount of elastase in your stool, which is an enzyme produced by your pancreas.
  • Fecal fat test, in which your doctor will measure the amount of fat in your stool. If you have a lot of fat, it might mean your body isn’t absorbing enough due to pancreatic insufficiency.

Treatment and Care for Pancreatic Insufficiency

Pancreatic insufficiency is treatable, but as of yet, there is no foolproof cure. Instead, you’ll need to treat the symptoms of pancreatic insufficiency by taking vitamin and mineral supplements, altering your diet and undergoing pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy.

Generally, doctors recommend a diet low in fat to avoid malabsorption, diarrhea and bloating. Taking vitamins and minerals supplements the nutrients you can’t absorb in your food, while pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy provides alternative digestive enzymes to help your body break food down more efficiently.