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  • Writer's pictureStacie Haaga

Alcohol and Gut Health: What You Need to Know

During the last few years of pandemic life I’ve noticed that more and more people are using alcohol to self-medicate for sleep disorders, anxiety, loneliness, and fear of social situations. Ironically, alcohol almost always makes these concerns WORSE!

In fact, research has shown that:

  • Alcohol decreases deep sleep and is linked to insomnia.

  • Alcohol may increase anxiety, irritability, or depression a few hours later or the next day after consumption.

I often encourage my clients to eliminate alcohol for 2 weeks to experiment with how they feel - after all, no one feels great the day after drinking alcohol - and in most cases my clients realize better sleep, increased energy levels, and less anxiety and depression when they stop drinking.

But what about the risks and benefits you can’t see? That hangover you nurse after the alcohol is actually symptomatic of the inflammatory damage being done to your body’s primary gatekeeper: your gut.

Alcohol and Gut Health

Like any food and beverage, every part of your digestive tract comes into direct contact with alcohol after you consume it, starting with your mouth all the way to your anus.

Unfortunately, alcohol contains toxic compounds that cause inflammation throughout your digestive system. Since almost 70% of your immune system is found in your gut, gut inflammation can hinder your immune response as well as contribute to conditions such as gastritis, reflux, peptic ulcers and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Of more serious concern is how the inflammation and alcohol toxins may increase the risk of cancer. There is a strong link between alcohol consumption and oral cancer, gastric cancer, esophageal cancer and colorectal cancer.

The inflammatory effects of alcohol on your gut barrier can potentially trigger gut issues such as leaky gut syndrome. Some suggests that it’s the alcohol-induced intestinal permeability (AKA “leaky gut”) can influence psychological and cognitive function. Those how have leaky gut from alcohol also had higher scores on measures of depression, anxiety, and alcohol cravings. This suggests that the connection between the gut and brain may play a role in alcohol-dependence.

To make matters worse, alcohol consumption can alsodisrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut, leading to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria and a decrease in beneficial bacteria. This can lead to a range of physical and metal health issues, including weight gain and metabolic disorders.

Alcohol's Impact on Nutrient Absorption

Further, alcohol-induced inflammation in the small intestine can also inhibit nutrient absorption and impair the liver's ability to metabolize nutrients. Malabsorption of food and poor dietary choices often results in nutritional deficiencies in heavy drinkers. Nutrient deficiencies commonly associated with alcohol use disorder include:

  • Calcium

  • Iron

  • Magnesium

  • Thiamine (vitamin B1)

  • Vitamin A

  • Zinc

  • Protein

In time, poor nutrient status may affect one’s ability to maintain good health and may result in general weakness, fatigue, impaired memory, and numbness and tingling in the hands and feet.

Nutrient deficiencies can also lead to liver disease. The liver is the body’s filtration system - one of it’s most important jobs is to filter the blood of toxic substances, including alcohol, after it’s been through the stomach and small intestine.

In fact, your liver metabolizes 90% of alcohol. In that process, it is reduced to a toxic enzyme called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is pro-inflammatory which means it promotes inflammatory changes in the liver, in addition to cardiovascular concerns like ischemia, heart failure, and coagulation disorders.

How do you know if you have nutrient deficiencies? Often it's possible to identify deficiencies based on symptoms however nutrient testing gives us a clear picture of functional vitamin, mineral and antioxidant deficiencies at the cellular level. It provides a definitive answer to what nutrients you need to complement a healthy, healing diet.

Other Health Risks of Alcohol Abuse

Because our overall health is so dependent on a healthy gut, it’s not suprising that heavy alcohol consumption is considered to be an important risk factor for different diseases, disability, and mortality. The following diseases have been linked to heavy drinkers, binge drinking, and even irregular heavy drinking occasions:

  • Cardiovascular diseases

  • Anemia

  • Cancer

  • Diabetes

  • Depression

  • Seizures

  • Gout

  • Dementia

  • Alzheimer’s disease

  • Nerve damage

  • Pancreatitis

How Much is Too Much Alcohol?

Reading all of the negative health effects of alcohol on your gut probably makes you never want to touch another drink. And for some people, that may be the best option. However, you may also be able to find a sweet spot in which you can occasionally enjoy an alcoholic beverage.

But how much is too much? According to the Center for Disease Control, standard drink is equivalent to:

  • 12-ounce bottle of 5% beer

  • 5-ounce of 12% wine

  • 1.5-ounce of 40% liquor

Light drinking is defined as an average of less than 1 drink for women and less than 2 drinks a day for men. Moderate drinking consists of 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.

Alcohol becomes more problematic with heavier, more frequent usage. Heavy drinking for men is considered more than 15 drinks a week and more than 8 drinks a week for women, while Binge drinking is when men consume more than 5 drinks in a single day and women consume more than 4 drinks in a single day.

Which category do you fall into?

If you’re consuming more than a moderate amount of alcohol, it’s worth cutting back.

Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Gut While Consuming Alcohol

If getting 100% sober isn’t realistic for you, consider reducing your intake. While excessive alcohol consumption can have a range of negative effects on gut health, there are steps you can take to maintain a healthy gut while still enjoying a drink now and then.

First, try to limit alcohol consumption to a moderate level, which is defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. This can help minimize the negative impact of alcohol on gut health and overall well-being.

Second, it is important to maintain a healthy and balanced diet that is rich in fiber and other essential nutrients. This can help support the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut and promote overall gut health.

Finally, regular exercise and stress management can also play a role in maintaining a healthy gut. Exercise has been shown to improve gut health and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, while stress can have a negative impact on gut health and overall well-being.

If you use alcohol as a stress-reliever, find healthier activities to replace drinking such as walking in the fresh air, dancing, exercise, prayer/meditation, journaling or grab a nap or go to bed early!


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