I suffer from occasional severe abdominal pain. After ruling out ulcers, reflux, gallstones, and IBS, the doctor’s new theory is pancreatitis. Can you suggest any herbs to prevent these attacks?
—C. B., York, Pennsylvania
Keville responds: The pancreas produces the hormones insulin and glucagon to regulate blood sugar levels and digestive enzymes. It’s no wonder that inflammation of the pancreas causes digestive problems and pain. This organ is vital for health, so I’m glad you’re consulting a physician, as well as looking to natural remedies. First, get on a lowfat diet and avoid fried foods, saturated and hydrogenated fats, and refined sugar. Drink no alcohol, not even herbal tinctures. Turn to pills, tea or glycerite herbal extracts instead. A particularly good herb for this condition is dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) because it improves the digestion of fats by increasing bile production. So does licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), which is also an excellent anti-inflammatory. (If you have high blood pressure, then look for deglycyrrhizinated licorice, or DGL.) Whatever the source of your problem, cramp bark (Viburnum opulus) will ease inflammation, cramping, and pain. Also helpful are antioxidant-rich foods such as blueberries—a traditional pancreatitis remedy. Just eating the berries is helpful, but you’ll find an even stronger antioxidant in anthocyanosides derived from bilberry fruit, which is available as a supplement. Pancreatitis is promoted by oxidative stress and the resulting production of free radicals. As a result, low levels of antioxidants can make you more prone to developing pancreatitis, and taking antioxidants (vitamins A, C, and E and selenium) helps to rid the body of free radicals and also helps reduce the pain and encourage recovery. To treat pancreatic disorders, practitioners of traditional Ayurvedic medicine prescribe Indian gooseberry (Emblica officinalis), probably because it is the richest natural source of vitamin C.
There are indications that polyunsaturated antioxidants extracted from soybeans, known as phosphatidylcholines, help protect the pancreas from damage. In addition to herbs, lecithin aids impaired fat digestion. Pancreatic enzymes such as amylase, lipase, and proteases are needed for proper digestion, so if you aren’t producing enough due to an impaired pancreas, take 500 ml at mealtime to break down certain foods.
Because your pain comes and goes, which is typical with pancreatitis, that indicates something is making it flare up. Jot notations about your eating and other habits on a calendar to get an idea of what makes it flare up. Then you can adjust your lifestyle and eating habits accordingly.
Khalsa responds: Most of the time, the inflammation of the pancreas is thought to be due to the gland being irritated by its own enzymes. In most cases the specific cause is unknown. Alcoholism or drug toxicity can bring on an acute attack of pancreatitis. About half of patients have a mechanical obstruction of the biliary tract—usually gallstones in the bile ducts. Viral infections also can cause an acute pancreas inflammation. Folks with pancreatitis often experience epigastric pain, fever, malaise, nausea, and vomiting. Mild cases, like yours, are often overlooked or misdiagnosed quite easily. There is no specific laboratory diagnostic test for acute pancreatitis. Medical treatments (other than gallstone surgery) focus on pain relief and using enzymes to substitute for the disabled pancreas. Herbalists use a multifaceted approach to handling this complex issue. Anti-inflammatories include licorice root, guggul gum, and Chinese Baikal skullcap root (Scutellaria baicalensis). Turmeric root is a standout. Start with 2 “00” capsules per day. Increase the dose to best results. For pain, try the combination of cinchona bark (Cinchona spp.) and willow bark (Salix spp.). Take 2 to 4 “00” capsules every two to four hours as necessary.
A few more clinical tidbits that sometimes help:
• Follow a diabetic diet and keep blood sugar under control
• Avoid alcohol consumption
• Limit intake of hydrogenated/saturated fats, sugar, and highly processed foods
• Increase intake of yellow and orange fruits and dark-green vegetables
• Add a multivitamin/mineral supplement
• Add chromium to control blood sugar levels and enhance insulin effectiveness
• Use lipotrophic agents—vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folic acid, choline, betaine, and methionine
• Take pancreatic enzymes with meals
Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association and the author of eleven herb and aromatherapy books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa has more than twenty-five years of experience with medicinal herbs and specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese, and North American healing traditions. He is a licensed dietitian/nutritionist, a massage therapist, and a board member of the American Herbalists Guild.