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Alcohol Is Harming Your Gut | Why That Matters + How To Heal

If you’ve been drinking heavily for a while, you may have noticed some unpleasant side effects in your stomach. 

I’m not just talking about the bloating and typical weight gain associated with alcohol

I mean stomach pain, gastritis, diarrhea, acid reflux, sluggishness, and increased sensitivity in your teeth and gums.

Your digestive system includes more than just the stomach. You also have the intestines, throat, mouth, esophagus, liver, pancreas, and anus.

Alcohol wreaks havoc on all of these parts.

Taking Your Gut Health Seriously

Unchecked damage to your digestive system can lead to a whole host of problems.

Examples include:

  • gastritis
  • IBS
  • inflammation
  • cancer of the liver, colon, pancreas, throat, and mouth
  • stomach ulcers
  • liver disease
  • pancreatitis
  • malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies 

And if you think this stuff just magically clears up once the alcohol is gone, think again.

Although the stomach is a resilient organ, the path to recovery will take some effort on your part.

If you’re interested in getting straight to the healing part, go to “How to Restore Gut Health After Alcohol” in the last half of this article.

Otherwise, let’s address the ways alcohol damages the various organs and parts of your digestive system.

How Alcohol Damages Each Part Of Your Digestive Tract

The digestive tract includes all the organs and parts included in the digestive process, from mouth to anus.

I’ll break down alcohol’s impact on each one and explain how they’re all interconnected. 

If you fancy a condensed video version of this information. Watch this short clip:

Alcohol’s Impact On The Mouth And Esophagus

When the cells in your body metabolize alcohol, it is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde.

What’s the big deal there?

Well, acetaldehyde packs a one-two punch of damaging DNA AND preventing cells from repairing the damage.

For that reason, acetaldehyde is considered a Group 1 carcinogen, along with tobacco smoke and asbestos. 

Why does this matter for your mouth?

Because acetaldehyde damages the tissue in your mouth, which can (and does) lead to mouth cancer and throat cancers, one-third of which are caused by excessive alcohol consumption. 

Alcohol can also cause dental problems like weakened enamel, gum disease, tooth decay, and tooth loss. It weakens the esophagus, which increases your acid reflux and heartburn woes.

And it causes inflammation in your tongue and mouth. 

In addition to being painfully uncomfortable, acid reflux damages the cells in your esophagus, leading to cancer. 

Alcohol’s Impact On The Stomach

In plain English, once alcohol gets into your stomach, it sticks around for a while. The problem with that is its effect on acid production. Our tummies need gastric acid to break down our food and fight harmful bacteria. 

Alcohol can inhibit the production of gastric acid, which increases the risk of that harmful bacteria getting into our small intestines. 

It can also damage our stomach lining.

Heavy alcohol consumption can cause inflammation and lesions on our stomach lining and slow down our stomach’s ability to get food and alcohol out of the stomach and into the intestines. This causes discomfort and bloating. 

Inflammation of the stomach lining is called gastritis. 

Gastritis is pretty unpleasant, and I say this as someone who has suffered from it. In the short term, gastritis leads to stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, bloating, and regurgitation of food. 

In the long term, it can lead to anemia, tears in your stomach lining, increased risk of stomach cancer, and chronic inflammation and scarring. 

Alcohol’s Impact On The Small Intestine

Moving along our digestive tract, we come to the small intestine. This is where nutrients are absorbed into our bloodstream. Kind of important!

Alcohol disrupts the activity of some enzymes, which are responsible for functions throughout the small intestine.

It also attacks the lining of the small intestine, which is problematic because it makes the intestine easier to penetrate. 

The consequences of that include:

  • increased of harmful bacteria and toxins entering the bloodstream and liver
  • liver damage

Alcohol’s Impact On The Large Intestine

This is where things get a bit gross. 

Simply put, alcohol impacts the time it takes for the food to get through your intestines and out your anus. And THAT impact comes in the form of diarrhea

It also increases your risk of bowel and colorectal cancers. 

Alcohol’s Impact On The Liver

When it comes to organ damage and alcohol, your liver is probably the first thing that comes to mind. We know alcohol is bad for our liver. Hell, we joke about it! 

See Exhibit A:

And even though this meme did make me chuckle a bit, the reality is significantly less funny. The liver is our body’s filter. It removes toxins from the body, not your weird soup cleanse. 

When your liver breaks down alcohol, it converts it to acetaldehyde, which you may recall is responsible for poisoning the cells and preventing them from repairing said damage. 

This can lead to fatty liver disease and, if left unchecked, chronic inflammation and tissue damage which can turn into cirrhosis. 

Cirrhosis is sometimes reversible but often fatal.

Why You Should Care About Your Digestive Health

Of all the damage I did to my brain and body through years of heavy drinking and poor diet, this is the one I continue to wrestle with the most.

I have been in and out of doctors’ offices, seen a handful of specialists, and attempted different treatments.

And it’s STILL a struggle. 

So many aspects of your overall health are directly linked to the gut:

  • immune function
  • brain health
  • sleep quality
  • mood
  • fatigue
  • skin conditions
  • inflammation
  • food intolerances

At the height of my drinking days, I’d developed an anxiety disorder, eczema, intolerance to dairy, and chronic fatigue. 

And though I have no way of knowing if the two are related, the inflammation did catch up to me in the form of autoimmune disease – something I have no family history of.

This is another reason why good nutrition is so important in sobriety

There are so many factors affecting your quality of life that are linked to the gut. So it’s important to take your gut health seriously. 

How To Restore Gut Health After Alcohol

If you are now or have ever been a moderate to heavy drinker, chances are your gut needs a little TLC.

Fortunately, we can do plenty of things on our own to heal our guts.

A plate that says gut health with a slice of wholegrain bread
alcohol and gut health

Eat fermented food.

Fermented foods are a wonderful source of natural probiotics – live bacteria that go to work restoring the health of your gut microbiome.

It’s important to note that while a lot of fermented food is available in our grocery stores, not all contain natural probiotics.

Read your labels!

Before buying fermented food, make sure the label says “contains live cultures” or “contains probiotics” before purchasing. Additionally, fermented food with live cultures is typically found in the refrigerated section and is not shelf-stable.

Luckily, there are a lot of fermented food sources to choose from, including:

  • Kefir
  • Plain Yogurt (check the label for extra bacteria as most starter culture bacteria in yogurt get killed by stomach acid)
  • Dry Curd Cottage Cheese or Farmer’s Cheese, or fermented cottage cheese
  • Certain aged cheeses (check the label for live and active cultures)
  • Fermented Vegetables
  • Tempeh (choose gluten-free)
  • Miso (refrigerated)
  • Pickles (in salt, not vinegar)
  • Sauerkraut (choose refrigerated)
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha (no sugar)
  • Other probiotic drinks (no sugar), like beet Kvass, apple cider

Source: https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/blog/blog-posts/2019/6/fermented-foods-for-gut-health/

probiotic benefits inforgraphic
the benefits of probiotics

2. Take a probiotic.

If you can’t find or don’t care for the taste of fermented food, an alternative option is to take a Cleveland Clinic has a handy guide for probiotic shopping. They recommend choosing a brand with at least 1 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) and contains the genus Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, or Saccharomyces boulardii.

Interestingly, they also recommend steering clear of generic store brands and specifically looking for products that have been tested for the issue you’re trying to address.

For example, if you want a probiotic with gastrointestinal support that can help with gas and bloating, you might opt for Dr. Formula’s Nexabiotic Advanced Multi Probiotic.

If you want to restore balance back into your gut after a round of antibiotics, you might go with something else.

Your doctor or gastroenterologist are other great sources for probiotic supplement recommendations.

Related Post: Does Alcohol Kill Probiotics?

3. Add more fiber to your diet.

Fiber is so important for a healthy digestive system, yet only 1 in 20 people in the United States consume enough of it.

A study from 2017 found that a proper fiber diet helps to feed and make the bacteria in our gut microbiome thrive.

As a result, more and different types of bacteria are in your intestines. More microbes in your intestines mean that the mucus wall is thicker, and there is a better barrier between your body and the bacteria.

This lowers inflammation throughout the body. Additionally, the bacteria help with digestion, providing a dual benefit.

Foods high in fiber include:

  • Whole-grain products
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables (the more dense and fibrous, the better!)
  • Beans, peas, and other legumes
  • Nuts and seeds

What you don’t eat is as important to restoring gut health after alcohol as what you do. That brings us to our next point.

4. Eliminate or reduce processed foods.

A 2019 study explored the impact of consuming large quantities of ultra-processed food on gut microbiota. They found that consuming ultra-processed foods changes the gut microbiota and leads to inflammation.

Unfortunately, the traditional Western Diet is overly reliant on ultra-processed foods. This is especially true for the United States, which (on average) consumes 57.9% of all calories from ultra-processed food.

We have poor health outcomes and chronic disease to show for it.

If you want to fix your gut, replace as many ultra-processed foods with healthy, whole foods as possible.

Related: The Unsurprising Connection Between Ultra-Processed Food and Depression

5. Stay hydrated.

Drinking lots of water helps regulate bowel movements, prevents constipation, and helps break down food in your stomach. So it’s important to get your daily recommended intake – between 12-15 fluid cups per day (2.7-3.5 liters).

These recommendations include all water sources, including other drinks containing water and water in food.

6. Get enough sleep.

Not sleeping properly affects your gut in a variety of ways.

It increases stress, which can cause intestinal permeability issues. This leads to bloating, inflammation, stomach pain, food sensitivity, and everything you’re trying to heal from after alcohol.

It also has indirect consequences on gut health. Sleep deprivation leads to terrible food choices, which, as we just noted, can wreak havoc on our guts.

Additionally, some research suggests a connection between depleted levels of the sleep hormone melatonin and GERD.

7. Reduce your stress levels.

Chronic stress is incredibly damaging to our emotional and physical health. When cortisol levels spike, it can lead to various digestive problems and exacerbate existing ones, including:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • GERD
  • Peptic ulcers

Learning how to manage stress levels in healthy, natural ways is an important step on your path to gut health recovery.

Alcohol and Gut Health: What’s Next?

Consuming moderate to high volumes of alcohol will cause major disruptions to your digestive system if it hasn’t already.

Reducing or eliminating alcohol is important for maintaining good gut health and reducing the cancer risks associated with alcohol and your digestive system.

Start making the recommended lifestyle and dietary changes to restore gut health after quitting drinking.

If you continue to experience digestive issues, see a gastroenterologist to ensure there aren’t any serious, underlying problems.

And if you’re still drinking, let this be further motivation to stop and re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol. I’ll include a quiz at the end of this article if you’re curious about the state of your drinking.

These digestive issues will only get worse. Now is a great time to start taking care of your gut!

Take the AUDIT

The following quiz is called the AUDIT, which is short for Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. It’s used by medical professionals to assess your risk for alcohol dependence. Curious about how your drinking habits stack up? Take the assessment.

This is not an official medical diagnosis nor is it medical advice. Rather this is for informational purposes only. If you have any questions or concerns, share your results with your doctor.

Welcome to your Alcohol Use (AUDIT) quiz

1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

How many units of alcohol do you drink on a typical day when you are drinking?

A unit of alcohol is one standard drink. Examples of one standard drink include:

  • 12 oz can of beer with about 5% alcohol
  • 5 fl oz of wine (roughly 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl oz shot of spirits like vodka, rum, or whiskey (about 40% alcohol)

How often have you had 6 or more units if female, or 8 or more if male, on a single occasion in the last year?

How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?

How often during the last year have you needed an alcoholic drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

Has a relative or friend or a doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

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One Comment

  1. Very interesting. I got diagnosed with ulcerative colitis 30 years into sobriety. I always wondered about the damage I did when I was younger. Unfortunately food became my drug of choice and I continued to struggle through the years. Now I have no choice but to follow a very strict food protocol, a bit of a blessing in disguise,