5 Thoughts on How Alcohol Bangs Up Your Gut Microbiome

When it comes to drinking alcohol, the world would be a much happier and healthier place if everyone did a lot less of it. Or, better yet, if we all kicked the bottle completely – there’s nothing good going on there. But what about all that heart-healthy resveratrol in wine? Sorry, but it’s not the hall pass everyone thinks it to be. The research shows regular wine drinking to be a mixed bag. Nobody quite knows where the resveratrol sweet spot is -- just right versus far too much -- and it’s certainly not worth developing a drinking problem to ‘research’ the question on your own. The truth is, any kind of alcohol consumption brings with it the specter of organ damage, as well as issues of physiological and psychological dependency.

Not surprisingly, the stuff is also rotten for your gut microbiome, that health-sustaining bacterial garden you should be protecting at all costs. So, what happens to your gut when you drink alcohol? Plenty – and here’s why you need to keep your alcohol intake to an absolute minimum, or consider stepping away from the stuff altogether:

When your gut’s misbehaving, look to the bottle.

In my office, I see patients with all manner of gut issues, many of which improve dramatically with a customized program that includes a whole foods diet, good rest, stress reduction, movement and when needed, healing and supportive supplements. But, from time to time, even with patients who are following the plan, some continue to struggle with digestive ills. What’s holding back the healing and gut-sealing? Often the culprit is alcohol use.

Unfortunately, the legal drug that for many is synonymous with relaxation and good times, actually drags down gut health in ways that you’ve probably never imagined. Got IBS despite doing everything right?’ Feeling gassy all night long and bloated every day? Got GERD, acid reflux, heartburn, and/or diarrhea ? If a nightly tipple or two is your norm, then it’s likely the alcohol at play, messing up your gut microbiome and interfering with your digestion.

Your body and gut don’t thrive on toxins – and alcohol is one.

First up, when you have a glass of wine or a cocktail, you’re giving your body a lot to do. It has to process the stuff and get it out of your system as quickly as possible. While the liver gets the lion’s share of the alcohol to process, about a quarter of the stuff you’ve downed hits your gut, then moves on to the bloodstream, where it circulates through the body and eventually to the brain. That’s when that altered or high feeling starts to kick in. While that’s happening, your liver’s working to clear the rest of the alcohol out of your system. It’s your body’s waste processing manager and it knows alcohol is a toxin. Its mission is to protect you -- and send toxins packing. Frequent bathroom trips or sweating are two of the ways that metabolizing the alcohol makes itself known.

Alcohol tanks your beneficial bacteria.

When you have a drink or two, that alcohol goes on quite a journey, not only to the gut, liver and bloodstream, but also to the central nervous system and beyond. Safe to say, it’s a full body toxin. But, the gut is especially vulnerable. Overdoing it on alcohol overwhelms the gastrointestinal tract and actually kills off many of your beneficial gut bacteria, throwing off the delicate balance between the helpful bacteria and the not-so-helpful ones. Making matters worse, and even more imbalanced: alcohol consumption increases the number of bad bacteria in the gut, further tipping the bacterial scales in the wrong direction.

The result is a bacterial imbalance in your gut, or dysbiosis, which leaves your gut at the mercy of opportunistic pathogens and viruses that can make it much easier for you to get sick. Not only does that dysbiosis weaken your immunity, but it can also trigger leaky gut, or microscopic ‘holes’ in the gut lining that allow toxins to slip into the bloodstream and trigger inflammation throughout the body. So, the more you drink, the bigger the negative impact on your gut microbiome, and the poorer your gut health and your health in general will be. For example, at the far end of the scale, studies have shown that alcoholics with increased gut permeability are more likely to have liver disease, which can set the stage for cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Less alcohol equals fewer belly, brain and body ills.

Why does gut health matter so much? Because a leak-free, bacterially-balanced gut is going to be one that will keep digestion humming, immunity strong, nutrient absorption optimal and your mood in a happier, more stable place.

What many folks who pay attention to their lifestyle but drink a nightly glass or two may not realize is that alcohol-triggered gut dysbiosis and leaky gut are pretty closely associated with life-altering problems like depression, memory glitches and blood sugar issues. Simply put, anything much beyond a single glass of wine with dinner, is going to upset the apple cart and be seriously counter-productive to a healthy gut and a healthy life.

So, though you may not consider that one nightly glass of wine to be a big deal, you would do well to be honest with yourself about your actual alcohol intake, as every glass extracts its toll. A single serving of wine should be about 5 oz., but those popular oversize wine glasses, especially red wine glasses, often hold twice or three times as much. Put away a half-bottle a night and you can forget about toasting to your good health!

There’s no upside with alcohol.

My personal point of view is that alcohol is a toxin that harms the liver, kills brain cells, alters the microbiome, and disrupts sleep. And that when it comes to some beers, ciders, liquors, and liqueurs, alcohol is also a significant source of carbs that could otherwise be avoided. (Most of my patients who drink wine daily, even dry wine, tend to put on weight and store fat.) But I’m well aware that I’m in the minority here, and the millions of city dwellers I live among definitely don’t agree! Drinking is a part of life for many people, and a way to connect and commune.

If that’s the case for you, I simply invite you to gently consider how and why you drink, to determine if it’s a frequent and hard-wired habit or just an occasional pleasurable activity that fills you with a positive sense of well-being. Here too, be honest. In order to better examine your relationship with alcohol, as yourself these four questions:

  1. Is that glass of wine, beer, or cocktail a treat you truly savor, sip by sip, or a default drink you pour each night, automatically, without thinking?
  2. Is your drink of choice an enriching enhancement to your meal or social experience, or is it your way of medicating stress, anxiety, or a lack of joy, or helping you lose inhibitions that otherwise hold you back?
  3. Do you tend to drink alone, or with a partner or in a group setting—and in each case, why?
  4. Are you happy with your relationship to alcohol, or is there something you’d like to change about it?

Context is everything when it comes to drinking. Tuning in to why you’re drinking and being conscious of its purpose each time you do it is a powerful tool for keeping your relationship with alcohol – and your gut health – in in healthy balance.

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