Monday, February 25, 2013

Food as Medicine, Part 3: The Pancreas

The pancreas isn't thought about too much.  It should be, though, because a sick pancreas can lead to a very sick you. 

The pancreas has a very important role in the body.  It is a gland that sits just below the liver, below the stomach and in front of the spine, where it helps break down food and digest fat and plays a pivotal role in regulating blood sugar.  And if it's not working right, you can end up with some pretty major problems.  Here are a few: 

  • In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas doesn't make insulin any more because the body has, for some reason, attacked the beta cells that produce the insulin.  In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas simply loses the ability to produce enough insulin between meals.
  • Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas which can cause bleeding or even death of the tissues of and around the pancreas.
  • Pancreatic cancer is a particularly deadly form of cancer.
  •  In cystic fibrosis, the sticky mucus that comes along with the disease can also block tubes of the pancreas.
 In Chinese medicine, the pancreas is bundled with the spleen as a digestive organ that cleanses and modifies the blood.  It is associated with the positive emotions of trust, honesty, acceptance, and impartiality, and with the negative emotions of worry, overthinking, obsession, remorse, and self-doubt.  It is thought to be the seat of thoughts and emotions in the body, and is in charge of ideas, analytical thinking, memory, and intelligence.

If you want to maintain a healthy pancreas, you're going to need to ditch a few bad habits:

  • Alcohol.  Heavy drinking (3 drinks per day or more) seems to put people at a higher risk for pancreatic cancer and other diseases of the pancreas such as pancreatitis, and even regular moderate alcohol consumption may increase risk as well.  Limit your alcohol consumption to a drink a day or less if you can.
  • Smoking.  Cigarette and cigar smoking, and even exposure to secondhand smoke, puts people at an extremely high risk for pancreatic cancer (and a host of other cancers, too).  To reach safety levels of nonsmokers, cigarette smokers need have been off the butts for 20 years.  So if you got 'em, don't smoke 'em. 
  • Soda.  There is some evidence that soda consumption increases pancreatic cancer risk (but not tea or coffee, so 'whew!').  While more research needs to be done on the subject, that soda really isn't doing you much good to begin with, so better safe than sorry... and may be due to the fact that fructose has been demonstrated to raise risk of pancreatic cancer.  (1)  (2)  (3)  The amount in fruit is not enough to be of concern, and the health benefits of fruit are tremendous.  It is best, however, to avoid high fructose corn syrup and agave (which, despite its low glycemic, "healthy" reputation, is extremely high in fructose).
  • Grilled red meat, processed meats, and red meat consumption in men have been linked to diabetes risk, and in some studies to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, so you may want to change the way you cook/prepare your red meat, and cut down on how much you eat.
  • Obesity is well-known for its association with diabetes risk.  (1)  (2)  Maintaining a healthy weight is imperative for a healthy pancreas!
In the mean time, the following habits lead to a happy pancreas:
  • Quinoa seeds and Amaranth leaves seem to have a protective effect against frutcose-related damage to the pancreas in rats (2) (3).  Obviously, more research needs to be done in humans, but this is interesting stuff, anyway. 
  • A diet high in Omega 3 fatty acids (fish oil, krill oil, flaxseed, chia seeds) seems to help fight pancreatic cancer. (1)  (2)  (3) 
  •  Vegetable intake.  You've heard me say it before, and you certainly haven't heard me say it for the last time:  EAT YOUR VEGGIES.  High intake of vegetables (especially cruciferous ones such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, etc) is correlated with a significantly decreased risk of pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, and diabetes.  (1)  (2)  (3)  (4)  (5)
  • Low levels of the following nutrients are associated with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer
    • magnesium
      • Sources include: rice/wheat/oat bran,  dried coriander, squash/pumpkin/watermelon seeds, flax/sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, molasses, soybeans
    • potassium
      • Sources include:  white beans, potatoes with skin, bananas,  dark leafy greens, acorn squash, salmon, avocado, mushrooms
    • selenium
      • Sources include:  Brazil nuts, eggs, tuna, cod, black walnuts, sunflower seeds
    • alpha-carotene
      • Sources include:  sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, winter squash, carrots, broccoli, dark green vegetables, fresh green herbs such as thyme and oregano, green beans, apples, avocadoes
    • beta-carotene
      • sources are pretty much the same as those foods rich in alpha-carotene
    • beta-cryptoxanthin 
      •  Sources include:  red bell peppers, papaya, cilantro, oranges, corn, watermelon, serrano pepper, avocadoes, grapefruit
    • lutein and zeaxanthin
      • Sources include:  just about all green veggies, including peas
    • niacin
      • Sources include:  yeast extract (like Marmite or nutritional yeast), rice/wheat bran, anchovies/tuna/swordfish, liver, paprika, peanuts, sundried tomatoes
    •  alpha-tocopherol
      • Sources include: wheat germ, almond, hazelnuts, sunflower, grapeseed, rice bran,  and many other oils, sunflower and many other nuts and seeds, paprika, cayenne, curry powder, oregano, ginger
    • vitamin A
      • Sources include:  liver, paprika, curry powder, cayenne, chili powder, sweet potatoes (and other orange veggies and fruits), dark leafy greens
    • vitamin B6 
      • Sources include:  garlic, tuna, cauliflower, mustard greens, crimini mushrooms, asparagus, kale and other green leafies, broccoli, winter squash, salmon, leeks
    • vitamin C
      • Sources include: citrus fruits, guava, bell peppers, kiwi, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe

        Suffice it to say, you can get most or all of these nutrients from a diet high in fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. 
  •  Exercise.  It helps increase lean muscle mass and reduce adipose tissue, thus reducing the risk of diabetes.  It helps lower glucose in the blood (decreasing the amount of work the pancreas has to do).  And it even seems to lower risk of pancreatic cancer.  Making excuses is no longer an option.  Get moving.

Questions?  Comments?  Post 'em here!

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