Effects of Alcohol on the Gastrointestinal System
In 2019, approximately 14.5 million Americans over the age of 12 had an alcohol use disorder1—a diagnostic term for what is commonly known as alcohol addiction. Millions more regularly engage in patterns of heavy alcohol use, including binge drinking.2
Binge drinking and/or heavy alcohol use can have pervasive adverse impacts on a person’s health. Alcohol misuse can impact several different organ systems and a range of physiological processes.3 In this article, you’ll learn how alcohol can affect the digestive tract and other gastrointestinal system organs.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Gastrointestinal Tract
The gastrointestinal tract has a front row seat to alcohol’s journey through the body once consumed. Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream in the GI tract, and it’s even the site of some breakdown of alcohol.4
Some of alcohol’s effects on the gastrointestinal system is thought to be mediated through its direct contact with the lining of the GI tract, leading to:4
- Mucosal inflammation.
- Poor nutritional absorption.
- An increased risk of certain cancers over time.
Alcohol may directly increase the secretion of gastric acid in the stomach and can impair the activity of the muscles that normally keep stomach contents from leaking into the esophagus.4
It can also interfere with normal muscles movement in the small and large intestines, which may contribute to the unfortunate consequence of diarrhea for heavy drinkers.4
What is included below is not an exhaustive list, but just a sampling of alcohol-related GI tract health risks.
Sialosis From Alcohol Use
Chronic alcohol use can lead to a condition known as sialosis. Though most often painless, the condition results in bilateral swelling of the parotid glands, and may interfere with saliva production. Decreased salivary production may increase the risk of cavities and a general decline in oral health.4,6,7
When severe enough, parotid gland swelling can also change a person’s facial appearance. Sialosis is also associated with diabetes and malnutrition but is often diagnosed in people who drink heavily.4,6,7
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Although alcohol may not be the sole cause of the chronic burning feeling in the esophagus resulting from acidic digestive fluids coming back up from the stomach, it is thought to be a significant contributor to GERD in those who do drink.4,8
Alcohol’s effects on the digestive system may be associated with GERD for several reasons. It can lead to dysfunction of the lower esophageal sphincter, which otherwise keeps gastric contents from moving upward into the esophagus.4,8
It may also delay gastric emptying and impair normal forward movement through the GI system. Because alcohol is in contact with the mucosal lining of the esophagus and stomach, it can lead to direct tissue inflammation and damage, additionally contributing to the symptoms of GERD. Stopping alcohol consumption generally helps with the symptoms of GERD.4,8
Head and Neck Cancers From Alcohol
Alcohol’s effects on the gastrointestinal system can result in oral and esophageal cancers, among others. Damage to the mucosal lining in the esophagus increases the risk of esophageal cancer.4
Heavy drinking—consuming more than 30 drinks a week—has been estimated to increase the risk of oropharyngeal cancers by as much as 9-times. For someone who smokes and drinks, the risk is additionally heightened.9
There are a few theories for how alcohol increases the risk of cancer, including:9
- Carcinogenic alcohol contaminants.
- Free radical damage.
- Impairment of the DNA repair process.
- Alcohol acting as a solvent for the things in tobacco that can cause cancer.
GI Bleeding From Alcohol
A specific type of bleeding in the upper GI tract is called Mallory-Weiss syndrome (MWS). This is diagnosed from horizontal tears to the mucosal lining of the esophagus. Around 50 to 70% of patients who are diagnosed with MWS have a history of heavy alcohol ingestion.10,11
In many of these instances, the tears occur as a result of increased gastric pressure in connection with repeated retching or vomiting after excessive drinking.
Bleeding from a Mallory-Weiss tear can be worsened by the presence of portal hypertension and esophageal varices, which are themselves potential complications of alcoholic liver disease.
Gastritis is the inflammation of the stomach. There are several things that can cause gastritis such as infection with a bacteria called H. pylori as well as NSAID-mediated changes to the stomach lining.11,12
Drinking in connection with either of these can worsen the situation. However, even on its own, consuming too much alcohol can lead to acute gastritis through direct mucosal injury.11,12
Some signs and symptoms of alcoholic gastritis include:11,12
- Upper abdominal pain, ranging from a burning ache to stabbing pain.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Bloated or full feeling in the abdomen.
- Regurgitation of food.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Liver
Alcohol is absorbed through the digestive tract and primarily metabolized by the liver. As the main site of alcohol metabolism, the liver is ground zero for several of alcohol’s detrimental health effects on the digestive system. Drinking too much can cause the following health risks in the liver:2,3
- Alcoholic hepatitis.
- Fatty liver.
- Fibrosis (scarring of the liver).
- Liver cancer.
Some potential symptoms of alcoholic liver disease include:13
- Abdominal pain.
- Fluid in the abdominal cavity (i.e., ascites).
- Leg swelling (i.e., peripheral edema).
Alcohol’s Effect on the Pancreas
Chronic alcohol consumption may be responsible for as many as 25% of all acute pancreatitis diagnoses in the world, and 40 to 70% of all cases of chronic pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis can also dramatically increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.14
Alcohol’s effects on the pancreas’s ducts and acinar cells—which are responsible for synthesizing, storing, and secreting digestive enzymes—is thought to be the likely cause of alcohol-related pancreatitis. One potential mechanism involves alcohol increasing the viscosity of certain pancreatic fluids, which can lead to these small ducts becoming plugged.14
Over time, these plugs can result in pancreatic tissue ulceration, scarring, and fibrosis.14 Alcohol-related changes in pancreatic enzymatic activity can also lead to a phenomenon known as auto-digestion, which can further promote inflammation of the pancreas.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment in California
If you or a loved one are experiencing adverse health effects due to alcohol misuse, help is available. Laguna Treatment is an alcohol rehab in Orange County that provides different levels of rehab, including supervised medical detox and residential rehab.
Compassionate admissions navigators are available 24/7 to tell you more about our addiction treatment programs and the rehab admissions process.
Call now and start treatment today.
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