What exactly is the impact of alcohol on the gut?
Should you avoid it all together? Are there better or worse drinks to watch out for?
This week, we take an expert dive into everything you need to know about alcohol and its impact on the second brain.
Please remember, when alcohol is involved, please drink responsibly.
The effect of alcohol on your gut
The consumption of alcohol affects the digestive system in many ways.
Firstly, alcohol directly influences disturbances in the composition of the gut microbiota leading to dysbiosis, a condition where there is increased prevalence for pathogenic or harmful bacterial overgrowth.
Harmful bacteria and pathogens in the gut can not only exacerbate IBS symptoms but they can also irritate and inflame the gut lining, as can alcohol directly, causing impairment of the intestinal barrier and permeability issues (leaky gut), leading to the malabsorption of essential nutrients and the ability of harmful bacteria, toxins and pathogens to enter the blood stream.
Alcohol is also known to directly inhibit the absorption of nutrients. These effects can cause nutritional deficiencies and the potential for disease progression.
So, what happens if we take a break from booze?
When we give our body a break from alcohol, not only can this be beneficial to overall health but specifically to the gut it can help provide relief to an over-burdened digestive system.
Studies show that some of the effects of alcohol such as inflammation in the digestive tract and gut microbiome (the home for your gut’s good bacteria) diversity can easily be reversed by abstinence and a healthy diet.
Removing alcohol, even for only a short time, has been shown to help encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria and allow natural healing of the intestinal lining to take place. This can reduce irritation and inflammation within the gut and improve nutrient absorption.
For those who may be susceptible to IBS, avoiding alcohol for a while may result in fewer unwanted and unpleasant digestive symptoms and improvements in bowel patterns.
What types of alcohol are particularly bad for your gut?
All forms of alcohol cause the body to produce the chemical compound known as acetaldehyde, a substance which is known to be toxic, especially in large amounts, to the body.
Specifically for the gut, it is the fermentation aspect that makes alcohol particularly detrimental. That’s because fermented substances feed harmful candida yeasts and other harmful pathogenic bacteria in the gut, as does sugar which contributes to the imbalance of healthy bacteria in the gut (dysbiosis).
Alcoholic drinks that contain high amounts of yeast and/ or sugar. Beer, for example is high in both yeast and sugar. For wine, yeast is a key ingredient in the fermentation process of the grapes.
Therefore, the consumption of beer and wine could likely be contributing to an unhealthy gut.
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Are there “better” alcoholic drinks for your gut?
Alcohol that has been through the distillation process (the process that removes the yeast element) and those beverages that contain minimal sugar are going to better for the gut environment as this discourages the potential for candida to proliferate and minimises the growth of other potentially harmful pathogens and bacteria.
Examples of this are spirits such as gin and vodka (look for distilled). Clear spirits are also low in calories in comparison to beer and wine.
Hang on, isn’t red wine good for you?
We’ve all heard the phrase, “a glass a day…” and all that, so what’s the deal with red wine?
Red wine has been in the spotlight over recent years for its potential role in cardiovascular health. The reported health benefits have been attributed to the polyphenolic compounds (antioxidants) present in grape skins; namely resveratrol.
Whilst much of this research relates to heart health, recent studies have shown that red wine may also be beneficial to the gut microbiota. It’s believed that the polyphenols found in red wine can provide a boost to the microbes in our bodies.
One study tested bacteria from red wine for their probiotic qualities. The 11 strains of lactic acid bacteria that were isolated belonged to the species: Pediococcus pentosaceus, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus plantarum and O.oeni.
Whilst there is a growing body of evidence to suggest red wine does have some health benefits, its not to say that these outweigh the negative effects of alcohol but since red wine is likely to have less of a negative impact on your gut it may be the best option to go for if you’re planning to have a few drinks.
— Again, if you are going to have a drink, please drink responsibly. —
How much should I be drinking?
For some people the negative effects of alcohol on the digestive system may be experienced immediately or soon after alcohol consumption. For example, alcohol is known to cause unpleasant digestive symptoms such as acid reflux and/or heartburn. For those who may be particularly sensitive to the effects of alcohol or those that consume large quantities in a short period of time symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea/loose stools can be immediate, following consumption.
It is difficult to make a clear and defined recommendation for alcohol quantities before the negative effects of alcohol take hold on the digestive system as this may vary for individuals depending on the pre-existing digestive health status of the individual.
However, according to studies changes to the gut micriobota following abstinence can occur in as little as just 1 to 7 days indicating that consumption may have the same effect. One particular study showed that the gut microbiota in ‘less heavy drinkers’ was very different to ‘very heavy drinkers’ following abstinence after just a few days.
Research shows that alcohol consumption has longer term damage to the gut though of course. For example alterations and damage to the lining of the gut (leaky gut) would be expected to occur over a period of time and as a result of regular and prolonged episodes of alcohol consumption.
Again, it is difficult to ascertain a distinct amount per week at which this would occur as the degree of damage is dependent on multiple factors. It is certainly advisable to drink in moderation and in line with government recommendations* and to implement strategies to help protect your digestive system and minimise the damage from the negative effects of alcohol.
Responsible drinking tips
• Avoid drinking on an empty stomach
• Choose your drinks carefully- opt for yeast and sugar free
• Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration
• Consider a probiotic supplement which can help replenish healthy bacteria
• Support gut lining with key ingredients such as collagen, zinc, vitamin C (all contained in our Gut Supplement)
*From a general health perspective and to keep health risks to a minimum, the government recommends it is safest not to drink more than 14 units per week. For adults who drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread this evenly over 3 days or more.
Our research references
Our experts always ensure the content of these newsletter is backed by science, studies, peer-reviewed journals or other credible sources.
If you want to do some reading of your own, please see below: