TAKING over the counter (OTC) medications on a regular basis and not getting proper relief could be a sign of a more serious, underlying condition. Unreasonable work deadlines, money worries and being stuck in traffic are all daily stresses that get your heart racing and may also lead to a number of health issues, including gastrointestinal problems.Studies show that even past major stressful events could still affect your gut even now. Being stressed-out also causes many people to overeat and drink too much alcohol, both of which affect the digestive system.Of course, just having a digestive condition can be a source of anxiety in itself.Stress and anxiety are associated with the onset or worsening of symptoms in several digestive conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and peptic ulcer disease.If you find yourself taking OTC medications for gastrointestinal discomfort on a regular basis but you are not getting proper relief, this could be a sign of pancreatic exocrine insufficiency (PEI), as the condition may present with non-specific gastrointestinal symptoms.PEI is a serious and life-threatening condition caused by underlying diseases affecting pancreatic function.The pancreas, an organ that is located behind the stomach, plays an important role in gastrointestinal health, but not much is known about it. That’s why, although it’s a hard-working vital organ, it might be easy to neglect it.“The pancreas plays a part in both digestion in the release of enzymes, and in the production of hormones,” says Professor Jose Ramos, Head of HPB Surgery, Wits University Donald Gordon Medical Centre. “The enzymes, or digestive juices, are secreted by the pancreas into the small intestine. This is important because that’s how proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are digested so that they can be absorbed in the intestine. The pancreas also produces the hormone insulin and secretes it into the bloodstream, where it regulates the body’s glucose or sugar level, its main source of energy.” “Pancreatic exocrine insufficiency (PEI), untreated, can be extremely debilitating and life-limiting, resulting in malnutrition and uncomfortable symptoms that could be a sign of a more serious condition,” says Professor Ramos. “The main clinical manifestation of PEI is malnutrition and weight loss as a result of maldigestion. “Pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), a mixture of digestive enzymes in the form of a capsule, is available not only to relieve maldigestion-related symptoms, but mainly to achieve a normal nutritional status by helping the body to use fats, proteins, and sugars from food. “PERT has been shown to ease abdominal pain, improve body weight, and improve quality of life.”PEI may go undetected because the signs and symptoms are very similar to those of other gastrointestinal diseases such as IBS, Crohn’s Disease or peptic ulcers, according to Professor Ramos. “The key symptoms of PEI, other than weight loss, include abdominal pain, fatigue, diarrhoea, flatulence and loose, greasy, foul-smelling voluminous stools. Should you have more than one of these symptoms, it’s important to consult your doctor. “If PEI is diagnosed, they will want to start treatment to restore your digestion, help your pancreas work as well as it can, and ease any abdominal pain you might have. Also, investigations will be required to determine the cause of the PEI,” says Professor Ramos.“Early treatment of PEI is important for good nutrition, a healthy body weight and to ease the symptoms of PEI. “Avoiding meals and snacks that have a high fat content, increasing physical activity, avoiding alcohol and quitting smoking can all help in managing PEI symptoms too. “It is not advisable to cut out fats totally from the diet as they are important in a balanced diet — PERT will generally resolve the symptoms associated with fat malabsorption,” said Professor Ramos. If you think you may be at risk, speak to your doctor or pharmacist to determine whether it could be pancreatic exocrine insufficiency (PEI) or another gastrointestinal (GI) condition. — Supplied.