Is alcohol harming your stomach?

How too much alcohol can cause much more than an upset tummy.

Put simply, alcohol irritates your digestive system. Drinking – even a little – makes your stomach produce more acid than usual, which can in turn cause gastritis (the inflammation of the stomach lining). This triggers tummy pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and, in heavy drinkers, even bleeding.

 “If you drink within the government's lower risk guidelines then it’s unlikely that alcohol will have a lasting effect on your digestive system,” says Dr Kieran Moriarty, Consultant Gastroenterologist and spokesperson for the British Society of Gastroenterology. “However, drinking heavily can cause a number of problems.”

Find out more about how alcohol can go on to harm your liver and affect your bladder.

Long-term consequences

“In the longer term, alcohol is associated with an increased risk of cancer of the mouth, tongue, lip, throat, stomach, pancreas and colon,” says Dr Moriarty. “Other digestive problems caused by drinking too much include acid reflux – where stomach acid burns your throat.  Alcohol can also contribute to developing a peptic ulcer – a painful, open sore in your stomach lining.”

Dr Moriarty points out that vomiting, especially if you’re very drunk and not in control, carries its own risks.

“If you’re close to unconsciousness and are sick, you can breathe your vomit into your lungs, not be able to cough it back up and that can lead to death,” he says. “Violent vomiting can tear your throat too, meaning you can vomit blood. Usually, this settles on its own, but occasionally bleeding can be severe and life-threatening.”

On the less serious end of the scale, drinking can make it more difficult to digest food and absorb vital nutrients. That’s because alcohol reduces the amount of digestive enzymes which the pancreas produces to help us to break down the fats and carbohydrates we eat (1).

Alcohol can trigger symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS ) (2). Also, people who suffer from wheat intolerance should avoid beer, lager and real ale altogether, since these drinks are often brewed with wheat.

How can you protect your stomach?

If you drink alcohol, the best way to keep your digestive system feeling good is to stick to the government’s daily unit guidelines.

However, we’ve all heard other tips on how to ease the ill-effects of alcohol on your stomach and lessen a hangover. These include not mixing drinks, eating, drinking plenty of water and not mixing painkillers with alcohol. But do any of them actually work?

Mixing drinks: The old adage says “beer after wine and you'll feel fine; wine after beer and you'll feel queer,” but is it true? Well, sort of. Mixing drinks makes it more difficult for you to keep track of what you’re consuming, so it’s likely you’ll end up drunker than you would just sticking to one type of drink. The drunker you are, the more likely you are to be physically sick and feel awful afterwards. “There’s little evidence that it would make the effects on your stomach any worse though,” says Dr Moriarty.

Painkillers: While they’ll make a pounding head feel better, painkillers can have the opposite effect on your stomach. “Painkillers, such as aspirin, can further damage the lining of the gut,” says Dr Moriarty. “However, paracetamol is generally safe.” So before you reach for the pills, why not try an antacid, or a cup of mint tea, to settle your stomach instead?

Food facts: Eating something, preferably carbohydrate-rich food, before you start drinking may help slow the rate your body absorbs the alcohol. Drinking water or soft drinks throughout the night will also slow your drinking down. Both can help you drink less overall, lessening the ill effects on your stomach. 

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Page updated: April 2015