Gut Check: How Alcohol Tears Up Your Digestive System

The Negative Impact of Alcohol on Your Digestive System

If you’ve been drinking heavily for awhile (and I assume you have because you’re here reading this), you may have noticed some unpleasant side effects in your stomach. 

I’m not just talking about the bloating and spare tire around your waistline

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

Your digestive system includes more than just the stomach. You’ve also got the intestines, throat, mouth, esophagus, liver, pancreas, and anus. And alcohol wreaks havoc on all of these organs.

digestive tract
alcohol and digestive problems

 

Taking Your Gut Health Seriously

I am approaching three years of sobriety and STILL battling with a myriad of digestive issues stemming from my heavy drinking days. So if you’re reading this right now, experience digestive issues, and still drink, take heed. 

The more damage you do, the more difficult it will be to repair (if at all). 

Unchecked damage to your digestive system can lead to a whole host of problems you do not want to have such as: gastritis, IBS, inflammation, cancer of the liver, colon, pancreas, throat, and mouth, stomach ulcers, liver disease, pancreatitis, as well as malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies. 

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

 

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 rarely get to type fun words like ‘anus’ so this is a rare treat for me and my inner thirteen year old. 

Anyways, here’s a fabulous break down of how alcohol impacts these various organs, much of which has been condensed from this article by Addiction Campuses and this one by Austin Gastroenterology.

 

Alcohol’s Impact On The Mouth And Esophagus

When the cells in your body metabolizes 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. (What a dick!)

For that reason, acetaldehyde is considered a Group 1 carcinogen right 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. 

Additionally, alcohol can 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. 

By the way, in addition to being painfully uncomfortable, acid reflux damages the cells in your esophagus which can lead to cancer. 

Fun!

woman suffering from GERD from excessive drinking
reflux, digestive health, and alcohol

 

Alcohol’s Impact On The Stomach

In plain english, once alcohol gets into your stomach it sticks around for awhile. 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, the gastric mucosa. Heavy alcohol consumptions can cause inflammation and lesions on our stomach lining and also slow down our stomach’s ability to get food and alcohol out of the stomach and into the intestines. This causes discomfort and bloating. 

Just so we’re clear, 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, cheeky bastard that it is, can effect this process and “disrupt the activity of some enzymes, which are responsible for functions throughout the small intestine.”

And because alcohol is consistent, it also attacks the lining of the small intestine, which is problematic because it makes 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 from 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 on 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 is responsible for removing 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, chromic 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 been prescribed this pill and that. 

And it’s STILL a struggle. 

There are so many aspects of your overall health that are directly linked to the gut: immune function, brain health, sleep quality, mood, fatigue, skin conditions, inflammation, and food intolerances. 

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

The eczema has mostly cleared up, but that’s about it. I’m still frequently exhausted, still battling anxiety (though it’s better than before), and despite wishing it weren’t true, can’t consume large amounts of dairy without suffering major digestive distress for days afterwards. 

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. 

man with digestive distress
alcohol and digestion

 

That Being Said…

Please be careful out there. There are so many scammers and charlatans on the internet selling snake oil to magically cure all gut-related problems. 

Go to a doctor. 

There are some universally accepted ways to improve your gut health:

  • Take a probiotic
  • Eat fermented foods
  • Eliminate or reduce processed foods
  • Eliminate or reduce sugar
  • Add more fiber to your diet

But beyond that, take heed of people selling you supplements or overly restrictive diets or anything promising rapid relief and healing. 

If you’re experience digestive issues, see a gastroenterologist and make sure there aren’t any serious, underlying problems. And if you’re still drinking, let this be further motivation to stop. 

It will only get worse. 

 

But On A Positive Note…

Because I don’t want to leave you on a completely downtrodden note, it is possible to repair a lot of this damage.

I’m certain that my own slow healing process is a result of making questionable food choices, something I continue to work on improving. 

Have patience and trust that your body will know what to do. 

 

Related Posts On Sobriety And Physical Health

 

how alcohol impacts your digestive health

 

Sharing is caring!

Alicia @ Soberish

Hi! I'm Alicia, the woman behind Soberish. I write about sobriety, mental health, and the reality of making big life changes. Oh, and I get to call myself "mama" to the cutest little girl in the world.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Marya

    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,

Leave a Reply