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Is alcohol bad for gut health?

By The Health News Team | May 23, 2024
Two friends drinking rose

Summer is fast approaching, so beaches will be beckoning, barbeques will be sizzling, and booze will be flowing. It’s a time for vacations, relaxation, and, for many, a little extra alcohol.

But overindulging may lead to more than just a painful hangover. Emerging research is beginning to uncover the ripple effects heavy drinking can have on gut health.

Before reaching for another drink in the cooler, it’s wise to be aware of the impact alcohol can have beyond the buzz it provides.

The role of the gut microbiome

In the last few years, “gut health” has become a popular term in the wellness industry. The “gut” roughly refers to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which includes the stomach, small intestine and colon.

It may sound alarming, but your gut contains trillions of microorganisms — collectively known as the gut microbiome. It’s a complex and delicate ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and other microbes.

“Each person’s gut microbiome is unique, just like no two fingerprints are the same,” says Dr. Alissa Speziale, a gastroenterologist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “A healthy gut essentially means having a well-balanced, diverse gut microbiome.”

The gut microbiome is crucial for several bodily functions, including:

  • Digestion and nutrient absorption: Helps break down food to make nutrients available for absorption.

  • Immune function: Approximately 70% of the immune system is in the gut. The microbiome influences immune responses and helps in defending against pathogens.

  • Mental health: The microbiome communicates with the brain via the gut-brain axis — affecting mood and cognitive functions.

How alcohol affects the gut

While research on the microbiome is still in its infancy, findings suggest that people with an alcohol use disorder tend to have an imbalance in their gut bacteria.

Heavy alcohol consumption can shift the balance of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut,” Dr. Speziale says. “The disruption of that delicate balance has been associated with increased inflammation and chronic disease compared to healthier microbiomes.”

Additionally, one of the consequences of excessive alcohol consumption is an increased risk of intestinal barrier damage. This barrier controls the passage of nutrients, bacteria and other materials between the GI tract and the bloodstream.

However, it’s not yet clear how — or even if — cutting back on alcohol might influence the microbiomes of moderate drinkers. What we do know, Dr. Speziale says, is that alcohol can cause acid reflux and gastritis and can increase the risk of several types of cancer, including esophagus and colorectal cancer.

Tips for a healthy gut

When it comes to alcohol, drinking less is better for your health than drinking more. If you do choose to drink, the key is doing so in moderation.

Keep alcohol to a reasonable minimum and indulge wisely. Experts advise limiting intake to no more than two alcoholic drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women.

The best thing you can do is be aware of the impact of drinking on your health, says Dr. Speziale. If you do decide to indulge, here’s how to help protect your gut health:

  • As you drink alcohol, drink water as well. Never drink alcohol to quench your thirst.

  • Don’t drink alcohol on an empty stomach.

  • Be aware of your food choices while drinking. Drinking in excess can make you crave unhealthy foods.

  • Consume a variety of fiber the next day to help keep your gut bacteria happy and healthy.

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