It’s not news that alcohol is terrible for our bodies. Scientists and avid drinkers have long known the serious consequences alcohol can have on the liver, ranging from fatty liver disease to alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis — but that’s not all. Alcohol dramatically affects all of the major organs in the human body, including the heart, brain, kidneys, and pancreas.

The pancreas isn’t an organ we think about too often, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. The pancreas is responsible for producing the enzymes we need to digest food, as well as hormones like insulin that turn the food we eat into stored energy. When the pancreas is damaged, long-term digestive problems, malnutrition, and diabetes can arise.

Over the past few years, research studies have shown that drinking alcohol can weaken the pancreas, and can even lead to pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) and pancreatic cancer. And in a new study, published in the American Journal of Physiology – Cell Physiology, researchers have discovered just how the pancreas is affected by alcohol.

For their study, the researchers used two different methods to expose laboratory mice to alcohol in order to observe the effects of alcohol on the pancreas. First, individual pancreatic cells of mice were placed inside alcoholic solutions that mimicked the blood alcohol concentration of chronic alcoholics. Second, the researchers fed mice a high-alcohol diet, in which 25 percent of the calories consumed were alcoholic.

The researchers discovered that both the pancreatic cells directly exposed to alcohol, as well as the pancreatic cells from the alcohol-fed mice, had lower concentrations of a protein called sodium-dependent vitamin C transporter 2 (SVCT-2) when compared to regular mice. This protein plays a major role in transporting vitamin C to pancreatic cells.

“Reducing the levels of vitamin C and other essential micronutrients will interfere with normal cellular activities in the pancreas,” said Hamid Said, leader of the study, in a press release. “This may sensitize the pancreas to a secondary insult, predisposing it to the development of pancreatitis and other pancreatic diseases."

For the pancreas to function properly, the organ must absorb many different vitamins from the bloodstream. The researchers noted that earlier studies have found that chronic alcohol exposure prevented the pancreas from absorbing biotin and thiamin (two water-soluble B vitamins), but this is the first study to find that vitamin C is also affected.

Though this is a very serious health issue, it’s not overwhelmingly common; people who drink alcohol in moderation likely wouldn’t be affected. According to Dr. Fred Gorelick, one of the study’s collaborators, alcohol-related pancreatitis takes 10 years of daily alcohol abuse to develop, and less than 10 percent of alcoholics develop pancreatitis. But the risk of developing pancreas-related health conditions increases the more alcohol is consumed, suggesting heavy alcohol use may predispose individuals to issues with the pancreas, or that underlying issues with the pancreas may be exacerbated by alcohol.

Source:  Subramanian VS, Srinivasan P, Said HM. Uptake of ascorbic acid by pancreatic acinar cells is negatively impacted by chronic alcohol exposure . American Journal of Physiology - Cell Physiology. 2016.