People with pancreatitis are told to give up quite a few of the major guilty pleasures: Drinking, smoking, steak, pizza, french fries, ice cream, and essentially any other food or drink that isn’t low fat and ridiculously healthy. (You can find a collection of advice on nutrition here.) With all those temptations to fend off, most of us would prefer to keep our coffee (or in my case, iced tea) ritual/addiction intact…unless there is a clear reason to give it up.
Some very reputable sources put caffeine on the restricted list. According to a fact sheet put out by the Pancreas Foundation on Hydration and Pancreatitis, “Caffeine and alcohol should be limited, as they are diuretics and promote fluid loss and can also stimulate the pancreas.” The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (part of the Department of Health & Human Services) counsels that “drinking plenty of fluids and limiting caffeinated beverages is also important.” (Similar advice is on the New York Times health website.)
On the other hand, the Nutritional Guidelines for Chronic Pancreatitis put out by Stanford (the most comprehensive set of recommendations on diet I’ve seen) put coffee and tea in the “recommended” column. And while caffeine is known to be a diuretic (meaning that it depletes the body of fluids), studies have found that the diuretic effect lessens significantly for regular coffee or tea drinkers. (See a New York Times web article on whether caffeine causes dehydration and a Mayo Clinic posting on the same subject.)
There has been some research on the subject, and it may be good news for coffee drinkers. A study done by Kaiser Permanente back in 2004 looked at how smoking and coffee affect the risk of pancreatitis. Smoking definitely increases the risk of getting pancreatitis — no surprise given the unanimity of opinions on the matter. But coffee was found actually to decrease the risk of getting pancreatitis very slightly. (See an abstract of the study here.) Another journal article stated that the abnormal chemical signals that can trigger pancreatitis (and that are increased by alcohol and biliary disease like gallstones) can actually be inhibited by caffeine (abstract here).
These studies don’t seem to discuss whether people already suffering from chronic pancreatitis will do better or worse with caffeine. Given these findings, though, and the doubt cast on whether caffeine really dehydrates, there certainly doesn’t seem to be a strong argument for giving it up entirely. If you’ve heard differently, or had direct experiences, please comment.
February 2014 addendum:
I did some personal experimentation, and found that drinking caffeine does seem to bring on pain within about an hour. I have therefore cut out caffeine entirely — painful for me but not as painful as pancreatitis. This is anecdotal, and how you react to various stimuli when you have chronic pancreatitis seems to be quite personal…but I’d suggest that sufferers do some experiments themselves.