How Alcohol Affects the Stomach
Whenever alcohol is consumed, it passes through the gastrointestinal tract proving highly toxic and disruptive to its structure and function. Unlike other legal or illicit drugs, many of which are more easily tolerated by the digestive tract, alcohol has a uniquely potent and damaging effect on the stomach. The stomach’s primary role in digestion is the chemical degradation of food and beverages, a process facilitated by numerous gastric acids and digestive enzymes. Empirical research indicates that either chronic or acute alcohol consumption can unfavorably alter the stomach’s digestive function in several ways, many of which disrupt other physiological and psychological processes.
ALTERED GASTRIC SECRETION
One of the primary problems stemming from alcohol consumption is its negative impact on gastric acid production. Although the stomach already exists in a highly acidic state comparable to battery acid, alcohol increases this natural acidity, reducing its ability to destroy bacterial invaders, delaying gastric emptying, and inflaming surrounding tissues in the process. This, in turn, allows harmful bacteria to enter the intestinal tract where it causes multifactorial and potentially irreversible damage.
MUCOSAL AND RELATED INJURIES
Scientists and researchers have long known that alcohol causes mucosal inflammation. According to Christiane Bode, PH.D., “although low or moderate doses of alcohol do not cause damage in healthy subjects, even a single episode of heavy drinking can induce mucosal inflammation and hemorrhagic lesions in healthy subjects.” Beyond the inflammatory effect of alcohol on the mucosal lining, the following adverse reactions may occur as a result of heavy alcohol consumption or abuse:
- Delayed gastric motility—like other primary organs and bodily functions, the stomach is equipped with an innate clock that helps regulate the timing and flow of digestive secretions and muscle contractions. If disrupted by the inflammatory effects of alcohol consumption, this vital rhythm is lost and the stomach can no longer perform at optimal capacity.
- Nutrient deficiencies—alcohol robs the stomach of its ability to effectively absorb nutrients. Major macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, and fat, and key vitamins such as vitamin B, are all depleted by immoderate alcohol consumption. Over time, this depletion leads to numerous disorders—including Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS)—a widely feared and debilitating neurological disorder that is incurable once it reaches an advanced stage.
- Gastritis—although this relatively common form of stomach inflammation is usually treatable with proper medical care and dietary precautions, excessive alcohol consumption leads to “alcoholic gastritis” in many patients—a deterioration of the stomach lining. According to a study published in the journal Annales UMCS, “this condition occurred in 100 percent of chronic drinkers.” The study also implicated 13 out of 14 of those drinking for over a decade in stomach lining atrophy. Raw, exposed stomach lining is problematic because it subjects the body to a constant battery of acid that eats away at its structural integrity and damages its ability to properly function, a condition that may cause chronic, bleeding ulcers and ultimately prove fatal. Even in moderate cases, it may cause anemia, stomach cancer, kidney problems, and obstructive scarring. Signs of alcoholic gastritis include abdominal pain and bloating, nausea and vomiting, and regurgitation of food.
- Ulcers—these intensely painful, aching sores burned into the stomach lining are described as excruciating by many sufferers. Although many ulcers heal with proper treatment, untreated ulcers may begin bleeding—especially those located in close proximity to a gastroduodenal artery. Eventually, ulcers that perforate the stomach lining cause the acidic contents of the stomach to leak out into the abdominal cavity, resulting in pancreatitis or peritonitis. Even in the best-case-scenario, when ulcers remain benign and non-cancerous, the horrific pain they cause is legendary.
- Chronic reflux—the stomach is supported by unique muscular mechanisms known as sphincters that help seal the stomach from the esophagus above and intestinal tract below. These tight, narrow bands of ring-like muscle expand and contract in harmony with various bodily functions in order to help safely isolate the stomach’s digestive contents. Transitory or permanent failure of the lower sphincter which separates the stomach from the esophagus creates a common condition called gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD. This condition—characterized by heartburn, the regurgitation of undigested food particles, painful spasms, and/or choking sensations—leads to painful inflammation and general digestive distress. Although reflux is erroneously considered to be an “after meal nuisance” by many people who consume fatty, sugary, spicy, or other processed foods, it is actually a chronic, potentially debilitating condition that can eventually cause esophageal cancer, requiring surgery and aggressive medication to manage.
- Cancer—immoderate alcohol consumption is known to cause gastric cancer—a frequent and deadly form of the disease that develops predominantly in male alcoholics. The link between alcohol and stomach cancer is increasingly apparent. In fact, the American Cancer Society reports that approximately 10,000 people in the US die as a result of stomach cancer annually—a shocking statistic in light of the preventable nature of the disease when related to alcohol consumption. In men consuming four or more alcoholic beverages daily, the risk factor for developing stomach cancer exponentially increases.
- Psychological –researchers are discovering that billions of foreign cells dwelling in our stomach and intestines form a vast neural network and ecosystem that they have defined as our “second brain”—a supercomputer comprised of more than 100 million neurons, even more than our spinal cords. This brain is not a logical, thinking, and problem-solving brain, rather one in which gut health strongly influences the state of one’s moods. This neural network lines the entire digestive tract, including the stomach. Instead of receiving information from the brain concerning emotional well-being, it transmits information on moods to the brain, making the stomach as important to the state of one’s moods as the head. Those with healthy guts are far less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than those who chronically abuse alcohol.
Optimal recovery from stomach-related alcohol damage involves first quitting drinking and then developing an overall treatment plan to heal the existing damage so your stomach can gradually return to equilibrium. There are a wide range of homeopathic and medicinal therapies that can help in accomplishing this goal. If you are suffering from corrosive damage to the throat due to reflux of stomach contents, or ulcers and gastritis, specific PPI’s, natural supplements, or other Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved medications along with special dietary and nutritional interventions are advised.
A thorough medical workup with a gastrointestinal specialist is an excellent starting point to accurately assess existing damage and develop a treatment plan. Additionally, an experienced nutritional coach can help address precipitating issues that might be preventing healing such as food sensitivities or inflammatory conditions. After successfully eliminating or improving these initial obstacles, it is vital to nurture and rebuild the gut through a proper nutritional program. Some noted dietary recommendations include:
- Vitamin D
- Prebiotics and probiotics
- Essential fatty acids
- Digestive enzymes
- Natural anti-inflammatories such as ginger and turmeric
A healthy, nutritious diet packed with natural unprocessed foods can help restore your stomach back to optimal health. In addition to eliminating sugar, caffeine, fatty, fried, and chemically processed foods, it is critical to never skip meals and make a practice of cooking at home instead of eating out. Doing so allows total control over menu selection and ingredients and allows for the minimization or total elimination of dietary toxins—a critical aspect of healing. Those overcoming the corrosive effects of gut-related alcohol damage, including gastritis and ulcers, should strictly adhere to dietary recommendations and guidelines.
For those attempting to quit, or unable to quit for a variety of reasons while awaiting detox and subsequent treatment, the following guidelines are helpful in minimizing further damage:
- Never drink more than 14 alcoholic beverages weekly
- Space-out drinking sessions and pace yourself while actively drinking
- Be sure to designate several days a week as alcohol-free
- Keep a diary, documenting observable drinking patterns and habits
- Lead a busy, productive life that doesn’t allow excessive boredom or idol time
- Never drink on an empty stomach or when emotionally upset
- Never substitute alcohol for a proper, nutritious meal
If you or someone you love are struggling with alcoholism and in need of help, call a substance abuse professional today. Alcoholism can affect any one, at any time, regardless of age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, or profession. Alcoholism is not just a mildly concerning habit—it is a chronic, relapsing disease with far-reaching physical and psychological consequences. Professional medical treatment is imperative to ensure optimal outcomes and reduce the devastating effects associated with its progression.
For more about alcoholism and recovery, check out these related articles:
- “How Untreated Drug or Alcohol Addiction Affects Other Health Issues”
- “Recovery Drugs and Alcohol Starts Sooner than You Think–The Early Benefits of Treatment”
- “Are All Detox Programs the Same?”
- “12 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Treatment Center”
- Medical Science Monitor. Alcohol Consumption and Gastric Cancer Risk: A Meta-Analysis. Jan, 2017.
- The American Journal of Gastroenterology. The effects of alcohol consumption upon the gastrointestinal tract. Dec, 2000.
- International Journal of Nutrition, Pharmacology, Neurological Diseases. Alcohol, glycine, and gastritis. Jan, 2015.
- Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. Alcohol Consumption and Active Helicobacter Pylori Infection. Jan, 2017.
- BMC Public Health. Time characteristics of the effect of alcohol cessation on the risk of stomach cancer—a meta-analysis. June, 2013.