woman holding her stomach in pain

What Causes Pancreatic Enzyme Deficiency?

What is pancreatic enzyme deficiency?

The pancreas is a vital organ that lies behind the stomach and produces insulin and digestive enzymes. Pancreatic enzyme deficiency – or pancreatic exocrine insufficiency (PEI) – is a condition where the pancreas fails to produce enough enzymes needed to digest food in the small intestines. Digestion breaks down food into absorbable and useful components such as fats, minerals, and vitamins. When such breakdown fails, your body won’t receive the necessary nutrients, leading to poor health and attack by opportunistic diseases.

What causes pancreatic enzyme deficiency?

There are several causes of pancreatic enzyme deficiency, including:

Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis is the main cause of the deficiency in adults, with close to 12,000 new cases diagnosed each year. This condition is long-term inflammation of the pancreas, where the inflamed regions develop scars, pancreatic cysts, and pancreatic tumours. Calcium sets in those sites, leading to narrow and irregular ducts that prevent the flow of enzymes and normal working of the organ. Chronic pancreatitis is hereditary, with environmental factors like heavy smoking and drinking worsening the situation.

Acute pancreatitis

In severe cases of acute pancreatitis, pancreatic tissue may be damaged resulting in long-term pancreatic enzyme deficiency and or new-onset diabetes.

Autoimmune pancreatitis

Autoimmune pancreatitis occurs when your immune system constantly attacks your pancreas. In order to treat this condition, a steroid dose should be administered.


Surgeries that involve the removal of a part or all of the pancreas may cause pancreatic enzyme deficiency. Examples include distal pancreatectomy, Whipples procedure and total pancreatectomy. About 80% of those who undergo such surgeries develop pancreatic enzyme deficiency.

Symptoms of pancreatic enzyme deficiency

Symptoms of pancreatic enzyme deficiency include:

  • Diarrhoea – since your body can’t absorb fats, it’ll expel them in diarrhoea.
  • Gas and bloating – poor digestion results in gas and bloating.
  • Weight loss – since your body cannot absorb and store fats, you’ll start losing weight. Therefore, it is important to seek medical advice when you experience unusual weight loss.
  • Stomach pain – the gas build-up and bloating, combined with poor nutrition, leads to discomfort, which becomes painful over time.
  • Steatorrhea – this is a foul-smelling, oily stool that floats and is difficult to flush. While not everyone with pancreatic enzyme deficiency will experience it, anyone who does needs to seek immediate medical attention.

Treatment of pancreatic enzyme deficiency

Treating pancreatic enzyme deficiency needs a concerted effort, including nutrition, lifestyle changes, and medicine. Since the main issue is poor nutrient absorption, doctors will emphasise a balanced diet and supplements in conjunction with pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT). As the name suggests, PERT treatment introduces the enzymes your body lacks into the ingested food to aid in breakdown.

For more information about nutrition and lifestyle changes, please refer to our article on 4 ways to eat healthily with pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic enzyme deficiency threatens your quality of life and could lead to serious complications if not treated. Therefore, you need the right medical attention to manage the condition. Providing the right solution to your situation begins with understanding. Get in touch to learn how we can help.