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Alcohol and Health

5 Ways Alcohol Affects the Stomach and Digestive System

June 27, 2023
8 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 27, 2023
8 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 27, 2023
8 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 27, 2023
8 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 27, 2023
8 min read

In the words of Nancy Mure, “In understanding the basics of digestion, you'll discover who's in charge. Here's a hint. It's not you.” 

When all is well, we don’t give digestion much thought. However, as soon as problems arise, it’s hard to think about anything else. For many, stomach pain after drinking alcohol is a recurring problem, while others experience lower abdominal pain after drinking alcohol. So, how does alcohol affect the digestive system? What does alcohol do to your stomach? And what is the connection between alcohol and gut health? If you’ve ever wondered what causes stomach inflammation or wanted to explore the link between alcohol and gastritis, alcohol and IBS, alcohol and ulcers, or alcohol and digestive cancer, it’s time to dig deeper. Let’s look at the connection more closely by examining five ways in which alcohol affects the stomach and digestive system.

1. Heartburn

When it comes to alcohol and digestion, one of the first victims is the esophagus. Alcohol relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the small ring of muscle separating our esophagus and stomach that keeps stomach acid right in the stomach where it belongs. However, when we drink alcohol, the LES gets a bit lax, and it allows some acid to leak back into the esophagus — a process known as acid reflux.

Picture it like this: the LES is like a bouncer at a club, diligently keeping troublemakers — stomach acid — from entering the esophagus. But when alcohol comes on the scene, the bouncer gets distracted, letting the party crashers slip through and cause a ruckus. Hello, heartburn!

2. Alcohol and Gastritis: Stomach Lining Under Siege

Alcohol's next target is the stomach lining, the resilient protective layer that keeps stomach acid from harming our stomach tissues. Alcohol’s effects on the stomach can be quite serious. Alcohol can cause inflammation and erosion of the stomach lining, and researchers have found links between alcohol and gastritis and alcohol and ulcers. While the stomach lining is very durable, the relentless onslaught of booze can gradually wear it down, leaving the stomach tissue increasingly vulnerable.

3. Digestive Enzyme Drama

The pancreas — a busy factory producing digestive enzymes and insulin — helps control the body’s blood sugar levels. Under normal conditions, digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas are inactive until they reach the small intestine, where they begin breaking down food.

However, when we drink alcohol, our pancreas gets inflamed, a condition called pancreatitis. In its eagerness to break down alcohol, the pancreas starts to "overheat" and actually begins digesting itself — a process that’s every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds!

Pancreatitis can cause intense abdominal pain and lead to serious complications, including type 3c diabetes if the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are damaged. It can also result in malnutrition due to our food not being properly broken down and absorbed. In extreme cases, the condition can be life-threatening.

4. Nutrient Absorption: Missing in Action

Most nutrient absorption happens in the small intestine, a 20-foot-long tube coiled in our abdomen. Alcohol can interfere with this process, leading to nutrient deficiencies.

How does alcohol slow digestion? Imagine our small intestine as a busy highway, with alcohol a traffic jam blocking the roads and preventing essential nutrients from reaching their destinations. This digestive log jam can wreak havoc on different body systems.

5. A Shaky Exit Strategy

The final stage of our digestive journey — the large intestine — is not spared alcohol's effects. Regular drinking disrupts the balance of bacteria in the large intestine, leading to issues such as diarrhea and constipation. Picture our large intestine as a well-managed city with a balance of good bacteria (the citizens) and bad bacteria (the troublemakers). When alcohol comes to town, it upsets this balance, causing all kinds of chaos. There is a well-established link between alcohol and IBS, as well as between alcohol and digestive cancer.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Yes, alcohol can be quite problematic for our digestive system — but our bodies are remarkably resilient. If you frequently experience lower abdominal pain after drinking alcohol or have discomfort anywhere in the digestive tract after drinking, it’s worth taking a closer look at your drinking habits before things get worse. The great news is that as soon as we start cutting back on alcohol, our bodies begin to heal. Now, let's explore some specific actions we can take to support this process:

  • Gradual reduction. Going "cold turkey" can be challenging and potentially dangerous. Instead, try to reduce your alcohol intake gradually.
  • Hydration is key. Alcohol can dehydrate the body, so make sure to drink plenty of water and stay hydrated.
  • Nutrient-rich diet. Alcohol can rob us of nutrients. It’s important to replenish the body with a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.
  • Regular exercise. Exercise can help manage alcohol cravings, promote overall health, and even aid in digestion.

By understanding how alcohol affects our bodies and making an effort to reduce our intake, we're well on our way to a healthier digestive system!

Say Goodbye to Stomach Pain After Drinking Alcohol and Start Your Journey With Reframe!

If you’re ready to give your stomach — as well as the rest of your body and mind — a break from alcohol, Reframe is here to help! While the Reframe app isn’t a cure for alcohol use disorder (AUD), it serves as a useful tool to help you rethink the role of alcohol in your life in an intuitive way that is backed by neuroscience. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have found our method to be useful in curbing their drinking habits, and we believe you can, too!

Reframe is designed to provide you with the necessary knowledge and skills that enable you not just to survive with reduced alcohol intake but to flourish throughout this journey. We offer daily readings backed by research, enlightening you on the neuroscience of alcohol, and an in-app Toolkit filled with useful resources and activities to overcome each hurdle.

Join a global community of Reframers on our 24/7 Forum chat to gain motivation from people worldwide who can empathize with your experiences. You can engage with our certified coaches for personalized advice and guidance.

To enhance your user experience, we continually update our app with novel features. Our latest addition is an in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the most advanced AI technology. Melody is here to assist you as you transition towards a life with less alcohol — or none at all. 

And there’s more! Each month, we present engaging challenges, such as Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. Participate with fellow Reframers or individually — the choice is yours!

You can try the Reframe app for free for seven days. Why wait when there's nothing to lose? Are you prepared to take control and explore life beyond alcohol? Download our app today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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