How to Enjoy Alcohol Without (Totally) Ruining Your Gut Health, According to RDs

Alcohol does impact your microbiome—so should you stop drinking altogether?

A mounting body of evidence continues to reveal just how connected our gut health is to our overall health, and everyone’s looking for the best habits to adopt and foods to stock up on (and avoid) for better gut health. There are tons of gut-supportive food choices we can make—but did you know our beverage choices can also impact gut health? Drinking alcohol, for instance, can tamper with the health of the gut microbiome.

But this doesn’t mean you need to give up on happy hour entirely. Instead, one of the smartest lifestyle choices you can make to boost gut health is to think of alcohol as a treat to be savored and enjoyed in moderation. Here's what to know about the link between alcohol consumption and gut health, how one affects the other, and what drinking in moderation actually means.

<p>Maren Caruso/Getty Images</p>

Maren Caruso/Getty Images

Related: Drinking Alcohol, Even Moderately, Doesn't Have Any Health Benefits, Study Finds

The Importance of Gut Health

When we talk about gut health, we're referring to the health of the gut microbiome: the ecosystem of over a trillion microorganisms living in the large intestine. These tiny microbes can range from bacteria and yeasts to fungi and even viruses. This community of microscopic organisms is critical for healthy digestion, metabolism, and nutrient absorption, yes, but its influence throughout the body spans much further.

“The gut microbiome is closely linked to the health of our immune system which is responsible for fighting disease-causing germs,” explains Brianna Wieser, RDN, LDN, RYT, senior clinical program specialist at MOBE. “Countless studies have confirmed that ‘dysbiosis,’ or disruption of the gut microbiome, has been linked to chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and liver disease.”

The microbiome is also intimately linked with our brain health through a connection known as the gut-brain axis. This means that gut microbiome health has been associated with mood disorders, cognition, and stress management. And conversely, our brain health can influence the health of our gut.

Related: Here’s Why Drinking Gives You 'Hangxiety'—and How to Reclaim a Sense of Calm

The Connection Between Alcohol and Gut Health

So how does an evening night cap or celebratory weekend impact your gut health and gastrointestinal (GI) system as a whole? Here are some of the most important correlations between alcohol and gut health.

Long-Term Effects of Excessive Consumption

It irritates the lining of digestive organs. 

As we drink alcohol it passes through the esophagus into the stomach. As a broadly pro-inflammatory agent, excessive alcohol consumption can irritate the lining of these organs, leading to issues like acid reflux and gastritis, which can cause heartburn, nausea, and vomiting.

It can interfere with important nutrient absorption.

“It’s important to remember that alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and small intestine and metabolized in the liver,” Wieser says. “When consumed in excess, it directly changes the integrity of our stomach and intestinal lining.” The villi lining the small intestine are responsible for much of the nutrient absorption that occurs in our bodies. For example, “alcohol can interfere with the absorption of several B vitamins and zinc,” says Ashley Koff, RD, founder of The Better Nutrition Program.

It’s detrimental to the organs that metabolize it, like the liver and pancreas.

Given that the liver metabolizes alcohol, as does the pancreas, both organs can also be negatively impacted by overdoing it with booze. Overtime, and in the most serious scenarios, excessive use can lead to chronic diseases of these organs including liver disease and pancreatitis.

It can contribute to leaky gut syndrome.

Leaky gut is also a budding health concern linked to frequent and excessive alcohol consumption. During alcohol metabolism, “your liver is going to be releasing more pro-inflammatory cytokines driving inflammation that injures the lining of the digestive tract to create a ‘leakiness,’” Koff explains. Leaky gut occurs when harmful bacteria and toxins that are meant to stay within the intestinal walls actually escape and get into the bloodstream effectively leak out of the intestinal walls into our bloodstream, compounding the inflammatory effects and negative digestive impacts of alcohol.

Short-Term, Immediate Effects

It harms good bacteria.

But even moderate or occasional drinking does have a more immediate effect on the gut microbiome. Alcohol has been used for centuries as an antibacterial solution for wounds, sanitation, and infection prevention. But that also means “it kills off our friendly, health-supportive bacteria,” Koff says, and these are the “good-guy” bacteria found in the gut.

And it helps harmful bacteria thrive.

The liver produces a substance called acetate when it metabolizes alcohol, and it’s this byproduct that’s to blame for dysbiosis in the microbiome. Acetate in the biome leads to an environment where good bacteria die off and microorganisms that are unsupportive of our health, like certain harmful bacteria and yeasts (including candida) can thrive. This impact on the microbiome can also result in serious bloating, a common gut complaint associated with alcohol.

It’s extremely dehydrating, which impacts digestion and gut health.

Finally, alcohol is a major dehydrating agent, which can lead to constipation, a common GI complaint for many.

Related: This Is Why You Feel So Awful When You're Hungover—and What to Do About It

Tips to Enjoy Drinking While Still Supporting Your Gut

How is excessive alcohol consumption defined?

While these impacts of alcohol may inspire some concern, it’s important to note that the vast majority are only seen with excessive alcohol consumption. Excessive consumption is defined by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as frequent binge drinking episodes of more than four to five drinks in one sitting, or regularly clocking in eight or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men.

What is the recommended daily maximum of alcohol you should drink?

However, an alcoholic beverage can be a delightful social or celebratory treat for so many of us and, thankfully, it can absolutely fit into a healthy lifestyle. But how much is okay? The general recommendation in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men.

Personally, as a registered dietitian, I make even more moderate recommendations on a weekly basis, suggesting roughly three drinks or less per week for both men and women. However, enjoying more than that every once in a while for special occasions is absolutely fine.

“When it comes to alcohol, drinking less is better for your digestive health than drinking more,” Wieser emphasizes. “Any small steps taken to decrease your weekly consumption of alcohol is worth the effort.”

Gut-healthy nutrition tips to help offset drinking:

There are also lots of ways that you can preemptively support your gut health before a night out with friends. These include: 

There’s no denying that alcohol does interfere with gut health, especially when consumed in excess and left unchecked. But with intentional lifestyle choices and mindful limitation you can absolutely have your cocktail and sip it too! Part of prioritizing good gut health practices every day includes keeping alcohol to a reasonable minimum and indulging wisely.

Related: 9 Healthy Things That Happen to Your Body When You Stop Drinking for 30 Days (or More)

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