How Drinking Alcohol Affects Your Gut Health
By Jenny Sugar
March 15, 2022
If you love sipping cocktails while catching up with friends or enjoying a glass of wine for the health benefits, unfortunately it may cause you some digestive issues. Here’s what dietitian Anthea Levi, MS, RD, says about alcohol and gut health, and how drinking can cause inflammation and affect your gut microbiome.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Gut?
Alcohol is pro-inflammatory, meaning it can promote inflammation throughout the body, including in the gut, Levi explains. That’s a problem, since research shows that prolonged intestinal inflammation can increase our risk of conditions like liver disease, gastrointestinal cancers, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). She adds that alcohol can also lead to adverse changes in the makeup of the gut microbiome, which is the all-important ecosystem that lives within our gastrointestinal tract. The science tells us that booze can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut, driving down the number of beneficial bugs (like lactobacilli and bifidobacteria) and increasing the number of bad bugs.
Some studies suggest that chronic alcohol use can interfere with the integrity of the gut lining, Levi says, “resulting in intestinal permeability or leaky gut.” This can cause food sensitivities and inflammation throughout the body.
What Are Signs That Alcohol Is Negatively Affecting Your Gut?
In the short term, changes in bowel habits may indicate that alcohol is having a negative impact on your gut. Ever had the runs the morning after a night of drinking? Levi says that’s because heavy alcohol consumption can speed up motility through the gastrointestinal tract. As a result, the body may have less time to absorb fluids from gastrointestinal contents, so the stool remains loose. This can also cause smelly gas and bloating. On the flip side, Levi adds that some people may experience constipation after drinking due to alcohol’s dehydrating qualities.
Long-term signs that alcohol consumption is messing with the gut may include abdominal pain, nausea, loss of appetite, and bloating, which are symptoms of conditions like gastritis or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, Levi says. She adds that significant damage to the intestines due to excessive alcohol consumption can also compromise the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food, leading to malnutrition and unintended weight loss.
Are There Certain Types of Alcohol That Affect the Gut More?
When it comes to how beer, wine, or hard liquor affect your gut, there may not be a huge difference. Alcohol percentage may alter how different types of drinks affect digestion, but there are conflicting findings out there. You want to focus more on the sugar content in alcohol, Levi says. Since high amounts of sugar can affect digestion, avoid super-sugary cocktails and those made with artificial sweeteners or soda. The gluten in beer could also affect those with celiac or those with nonceliac gluten sensitivity.
Drinking on an empty stomach isn’t recommended either, and Levi says to sip on water or seltzer in between alcoholic drinks to prevent the dehydration that can cause digestive issues.
On the plus side, some research suggests that the polyphenols in red wine may boost beneficial bacteria in the gut while driving down bad bacteria, Levi says. Since larger amounts of bad bacteria in the gut have been linked to a greater risk of colon cancer and IBD, red wine may be a better choice compared to alternatives like hard liquor. But should drinking red wine be your go-to gut-healthy habit? No chance. Emphasize fiber-rich whole foods and probiotics like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut before booze.
Does All Alcohol Need to Be Avoided to Keep the Gut Healthy?
“The negative effects of alcohol on gut health are compounded by the fact that our food choices often shift when we’re feeling tipsy,” Levi says. If you’re opting for cake and fries when the late-night munchies hit every Saturday night, the sugar and fried foods won’t do your gut any favors.
You don’t need to nix alcohol entirely, but the less you drink, the better from a gut-health perspective. If you do choose to drink, the real key is drinking in moderation. Women should aim for a max of one drink per day, while men should aim for a max of two.