Alcohol & Your Digestive System: How Alcohol Affects The Stomach
- What Is Gastritis?
- Causes Of Gastritis
- Alcohol-Related Gastritis
- Symptoms Of Gastritis
- Risk Factors For Gastritis
- How Is Gastritis Diagnosed?
- Treating Alcoholic Gastritis
When abused, alcohol has a range of harmful effects on the human body. This may include gastritis, an inflammatory stomach condition that can be uncomfortable and develop without significant external symptoms.
What Is Gastritis?
Gastritis refers to any condition that irritates or inflames the inner lining of the human stomach, leading to tenderness, pain, heat, and swelling.
This inner layer, called the gastric mucosa, is located within the outer layers of churning muscle bands and blood vessels. Around 1mm thick, it consists of:
- columnar epithelium (tall cells that secrete protective mucus)
- lamina propria (connective tissue)
- muscularis mucosae (a thin layer of muscle that helps pull secretions out from the stomach wall)
Depending on the cause, gastritis may appear suddenly (acute gastritis) or grow steadily worse over time (chronic gastritis).
Common Causes Of Gastritis
Gastritis is most commonly caused by extended use of over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin.
However, any condition or combination of conditions that weaken or injure the gastric mucosa may trigger gastritis by allowing stomach acid to touch and burn the deeper tissues of the stomach wall.
These may include:
- infection with helicobacter pylori (a bacteria that also causes stomach ulcers or painful sores in the stomach lining)
- certain other bacterial or viral infections
- Crohn’s disease (an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the digestive tract)
- sarcoidosis (an immune system disease in which granulomas form in different parts of the body, especially in the lungs and lymph nodes)
- pernicious anemia (an inability to digest vitamin B-12)
- autoimmune disorders (in which the immune system attacks the cells of the stomach by mistake)
- bile reflux (heartburn)
- over-indulging in spicy foods
- extreme stress
- heavy alcohol consumption
It can be easy to overlook the fact that ethanol, the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages, is actually a moderately toxic irritant, and its metabolite acetaldehyde is even more so.
With heavy use, ethanol can directly irritate the lining of the stomach and harm the cells it comes into contact with.
This can cause damage and the stomach will need time to regenerate, especially if H. pylori infections are present to further attack the newly exposed tissue of the stomach.
In extreme cases, if gastritis continues for an extended period of time (typically years), it can become atrophic gastritis.
This is a more serious form of gastritis in that the stomach cells’ ability to function properly has been disrupted. It can lead to digestive problems and nutrient deficiencies.
Chronic gastritis is also known to increase a person’s risk of developing stomach cancer.
Common Symptoms Of Alcoholic Gastritis
Not everyone who has gastritis experiences external symptoms. Those who do, however, may report symptoms that include:
- burning or gnawing stomach pain between meals or during the night hours
- other abdominal pain
- bloating or feeling unusually “full” in their upper abdomen after eating
- loss of appetite
- upset stomach
- black, tarry stool
- dark, bloody, or “coffee grounds” vomit
These symptoms are similar to those associated with peptic ulcers, which may occur with gastritis, as well as Crohn’s disease, gallstones, and food poisoning.
Please note that if you are vomiting blood or have bloody or black stools, you should consult your doctor immediately.
Risk Factors For Gastritis
Risk factors for gastritis, and alcoholic gastritis, in particular, include:
- alcohol use disorders (AUDs) and/or heavy drinking
- taking NSAIDs or corticosteroids
- infection with H. pylori
- major surgeries
- kidney or liver failure
- respiratory failure
- high-stress life events
How Is Gastritis Diagnosed?
Gastritis can be detected using several different tests, including:
- a complete blood count (CDC), a blood test that measures white and red blood cells, hemoglobin, hematocrit, and platelet levels
- blood, breath, or saliva tests, which are used to detect the presence of H. pylori
- fecal tests
- endoscopy, to investigate the lining of the stomach with a small camera
- gastric tissue biopsy, which removes a small piece of stomach tissue for analysis
- X-rays, which can visualize structural problems in your digestive system
Treating Alcoholic Gastritis
Treatment options for acute gastritis may include:
- a bland diet
- antibiotics, to resolve H. pylori infections
- antacids, to moderate stomach acidity
- H2 antagonists and proton pump inhibitors, to inhibit stomach acid production
- no treatment at all
However, if alcohol use has been a cause or major factor behind a case of gastritis, it’s a sign that a person’s drinking has become a problem and that it may be contributing to other, far more harmful behavioral effects and health issues.
To learn about our substance abuse treatment programs, please contact us today.
FAQs About The Effects Of Alcohol On The Stomach
How Does Alcohol Affect Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Alcohol can be an irritant for those who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can cause IBS flare ups and worsen symptoms such as abdominal pain. Alcohol can also cause acid reflux which may damage the stomach even further.
It is recommended that those with IBS avoid alcohol or limit their intake.
Learn more about Alcohol & IBS
Does Alcohol Affect The Gallbladder?
Alcohol does not affect the gallbladder directly. However, alcohol use can still negatively affect other major organs which could, indirectly, lead to problems in the gallbladder.
Learn more about Alcohol Consumption & The Gallbladder
Can Alcohol Cause Colitis?
Alcohol is linked to a higher risk of ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel syndrome. Alcohol use is also linked to more flare-ups of colitis, where the disease was previously inactive before drinking alcohol.
Learn more about Alcohol & Ulcerative Colitis
Can Alcohol Cause GERD?
Medical experts and researchers do not believe that alcohol consumption is a cause of GERD on its own. However, major alcohol misuse is considered a risk factor for GERD and drinking can worsen episodes of acid reflux and the symptoms of GERD for many individuals.
Learn more about Alcohol & GERD
Is Alcohol Use Associated With Heartburn?
Alcohol use can affect several bodily systems and can directly impact the digestive system. Alcohol can weaken the muscles in the esophagus that direct food into the stomach. This can cause acid reflux, which is when stomach acid rises into the esophagus.
The most common symptom of acid reflux is heartburn, which is a burning sensation in the chest or throat. Occasional heartburn can be treated with over-the-counter medications. If alcohol is causing acid reflux, avoiding alcohol may improve heartburn.
Learn more about Alcohol Use & Heartburn
Can Alcohol Cause Diarrhea?
Alcohol consumption can inflame the stomach, dehydrate the body, and disrupt the balance of a person’s gut microbiome.
As a result, alcoholic drinks are frequently responsible for uncomfortable bouts of diarrhea, especially following periods of binge drinking or heavy drinking.
Learn more about Diarrhea After Drinking Alcohol
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