Our digestive system is filled with enzymes that turn food into products our body can use. Components of our digestive system include the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestine, rectum and anus. Each plays a key role.
One helps break down proteins and carbohydrates. The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine while also producing insulin and glucagon. Insulin and glucagon are involved in maintaining levels of glucose, but that's another story.
What happens when the enzymes become active inside the pancreas and begin to consume the surrounding tissues and organs? Acute Pancreatitis; an act of molecular cannibalism. Acute Pancreatitis can be caused by gallstones or excessive alcohol consumption. Gallstones create a blockage of the bile and pancreatic ducts. The main symptom is pain in the upper left side or middle of the abdomen. It all begins with a protease, trypsin which is used to break down protein molecules in food. Inactive trypsin is stored into small organelles, zymogen granules. Yet, when Acute Pancreatitis occurs, they become free in the cytoplasm and begin to digest the pancreas. If the tissue has been destroyed and scarring develops, it can become Chronic Pancreatitis.
There has been no cure for this disease, but rather treatments such as pain medicines, I.V.'s antibiotics and changes in diet. One way to diagnose Acute Pancreatitis is by Therapeutic Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). It is used to view the pancreas, gallbladder, bile ducts and can be used to treat complications. Most treatments involve opening the bile ducts and removing the gallstones.
Scientists are working on prevention and treatment by looking at the processes the body goes through. Calcium ions are believed to play a major role in the premature activation of trypsin by causing the breakdown of the granules which resulted in the release of the enzymes. Yet, the rise in calcium ions is required for normal secretion, but can also cause this disease. Scientists believe short-lasting concentrations of calcium ions cause normal secretion while sustained high levels lead to the self-destruction.
Scientists have also discovered that the cells responsible for making these enzymes are protected from the effects of alcohol by preventing ethanol from causing the release of calcium ions. They also found that trypsin activation is dependent on calcium ions. The goal is to reduce the activity of the calcium ion pathways. One way is coffee. Coffee interferes with the channels and can also reduce the effects of excessive alcohol consumption.
This is only one case in which the body begins to attack itself. One that is more well-known is Celiac Disease. When an individual eats gluten, the immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine. This can be treatable with the help of a special diet. However, Acute Pancreatitis can create several issues and worsen if not treated properly or taken care of. One can reduce their risk of Acute Pancreatitis by limiting their alcohol consumption. With today's society, drinking is a social norm. However, it does take many drinks for Acute Pancreatitis to occur.
Someday, scientists will be able to develop successful treatments and further prevention will be on its way.
Our bodies are a very complex system, and can sometimes turn on itself.
The War Within