Josh Chandler | March 16, 2022

Ways Alcohol Damages The Digestive System

How Alcohol Affects the Digestive System

Consuming alcohol can negatively affect our health and bodies, especially when abused. It is well known how alcohol impacts the liver, but many are unaware of the effects it can have on the rest of the digestive system. The digestive system is not designed to process large amounts of alcohol, and alcohol abuse can cause health issues, including your mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, pancreas, stomach, and intestines.

Our bodies need proper nutrition to work well. Food is consumed and converted into the necessary fuel to power cells. The digestive system is what makes this food and metabolizes what we consume into its usable form. Each organ in the digestive system has its own role in ingesting, digesting, and absorbing nutrients from food and then removing waste products from the body.

Without effective alcohol addiction treatment, the substance can damage these organs that it comes in contact with, and once it has entered the bloodstream, it can damage the liver and large intestine. Alcohol is not a nutritious substance, and the digestive system treats it as a toxin, working extra hard to eliminate it from the body. In fact, the body prioritizes removing it from the body ahead of other nutrients like lipids (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates). Unlike other nutrients, alcohol is absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the stomach lining and the small intestine. The liver is primarily responsible for metabolizing alcohol and is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde.

Acetaldehyde can damage DNA and prevent cells from repairing the damage. Alcohol and acetaldehyde are both classified as Group 1 carcinogens that facilitate tumor initiation and growth. Any type of alcohol consumption can damage the digestive system and increase the risk of liver disease and many types of cancer.

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1. Alcohol Damages the Mouth and Throat

Alcohol quickly penetrates your mouth’s saliva and reaches a higher concentration in that area. For about 30 minutes after drinking, your saliva contains more alcohol than your bloodstream. There are many other less severe effects of alcohol on the mouth and throat from drinking alcohol as well. It can impair tissue healing, especially when drinking alcohol is combined with smoking or diabetes. When intoxicated, a person is less likely to stick to oral care habits like brushing or flossing their teeth, which can cause tooth and gum disease. There is an increased risk for tooth decay from the sugar in the alcohol, but drinkers tend to consume higher amounts of refined carbohydrates to satisfy their “munchies.” Sugars from cocktails combined with existing mouth bacteria can create acids that attack tooth enamel resulting in cavities.

Heavy drinking or binge drinking can lead to vomiting. The strong stomach acids can erode the inner surface of teeth, causing tooth decay as well. Long-term alcohol abuse also contributes to gum disease or periodontitis. Loss of gum attachment from gum disease causes the tooth structure to become exposed, and the person can develop sensitivity to hot and cold.

2. Alcohol Damages the Esophagus

When alcohol comes in contact with the esophagus, the long tube running from the mouth to the stomach, it increases the risk for squamous cell carcinoma (cancer). Alcohol can damage the cells along the esophagus directly and injure the esophagus by how it affects stomach acid. Many issues along the esophagus are caused by stomach acid coming up; these include esophagitis, acid reflux, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), and vomiting. Alcohol causes stomach acid to come to the esophagus more easily by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter, which is a muscle between the stomach and esophagus, basically acting as a valve to prevent food and acid from coming back up. When stomach acid comes back up, it can damage the lining of the esophagus.

3. Alcohol Damages the Stomach

The stomach is the first organ to have extended contact with alcohol. The primary job of the stomach is to store, mix, and start breaking down food and drink. Alcohol affects your stomach in several ways. Those who regularly drink experience acid reflux, and it can affect acid production and reduce its ability to destroy bacteria that enter the stomach. This process can allow potentially harmful bacteria to enter the small intestine and cause intestinal upset.

The mucous cells in the stomach help protect the stomach wall from being damaged by acid and digestive enzymes. Without proper mucous production, the stomach lining can become inflamed, causing what is known as gastritis. Even one single heavy episode of drinking can damage mucous cells. With long-term alcohol abuse, the stomach lining can be worn down, causing bleeding or the development of an ulcer.

Alcohol beverages with a high alcohol content (more than 15% alcohol volume) can delay stomach emptying, resulting in bacterial degradation of food and leading to abdominal discomfort. Alcohol abuse can also lead to stomach cancer, an especially dangerous cancer since its early signs are vague.

4. Alcohol Damages the Liver

Liver damage is one of the more well-known effects of alcohol on the body. The liver is the main organ responsible for metabolizing alcohol; some other cells in the body also do this but not to the extent of the liver. The liver filters the blood from the digestive tract and filters out toxins from the bloodstream. The more toxins in the body, such as a large amount of alcohol, the harder it needs to work. As the liver breaks down alcohol, it converts it into acetaldehyde, a cell poison that causes liver inflammation. This can cause damage to the liver and alcoholic liver disease. Some liver diseases associated with chronic heavy drinking are fatty liver and cirrhosis. Liver disease and cirrhosis impede the liver from functioning properly and adequately removing toxins from the body.

5. Alcohol Damages the Large Intestine

Alcohol reaches the large intestines via the bloodstream, increasing the risk of bowel cancer and colorectal cancer. More studies are beginning to focus on the effects of alcohol on the large intestine, including how alcohol causes colon cancer. Many people who struggle with alcohol use disorder or chronic heavy drinking suffer from diarrhea. It can affect the time it takes for contents to travel through the intestines and allow sufficient time to absorb most nutrients, leading to malnutrition and dehydration.

Alcohol abuse can also cause an inflammatory response or chronic intestinal inflammation, leading to excess gas and discomfort and diarrhea or constipation. It can also cause bacterial overgrowth in the intestines and cause the gut lining to become more permeable, meaning that whole food particles may cross the gut lining, causing infections.

Check out our blog to see what happens to your body when you try to quit alcohol cold turkey:

Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey: What to Expect

Concerned About Alcohol’s Impact on Your Health?

As mentioned above, chronic alcohol use is attributed to many digestive health issues, from tooth and gum disease to gastrointestinal problems, malnutrition, and various forms of gastrointestinal cancers in the worst-case scenario. Even moderate alcohol use can lead to some of these disorders, but the human body will begin to heal as soon as alcohol use is stopped. For some, it may be easy to cut back or even completely stop alcohol use on their own when they start to experience the adverse health effects. It may be much more challenging for others who need professional help to control their drinking.

If you or someone you love is experiencing negative impacts on the gastrointestinal system from alcohol and cannot stop alcohol use, there is help. Alcoholism is not only a psychological addiction but also a physical one. Alcohol abuse can cause physical changes to the brain, making it harder to stop drinking. The brain’s function becomes dependent on alcohol, and when it is not available, it causes many negative withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal from alcohol can be dangerous and even deadly, which means it often requires a medical detox.

At Muse Treatment in Los Angeles, California, we help treat alcohol addiction. Our program includes the many steps and support needed to achieve long-term recovery from alcoholism, including medical alcohol detox, inpatient and outpatient rehab, sober living, and dual diagnosis treatment. We know the various adverse health effects alcohol abuse can have on your body and will facilitate medical appointments for any gastrointestinal issues that may have resulted from alcohol abuse.

Our goal is to help you overcome alcohol addiction through individualized treatment plans, including various forms of therapy, support groups, teaching healthy coping mechanisms, and giving you a whole toolbox to use in the real world after your program is completed.

If you are concerned about how alcohol impacts your health and cannot stop drinking, please give us a call at (800) 426-1818 today. One of our addiction specialists will be happy to guide you and answer any questions you may have about entering an alcohol addiction treatment program.

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