Every January 1st, nearly 20% of Americans commit to “Dry January,” or sparing their bodies from booze for the first month of the year.
There are myriad articles written about the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of taking a break from boozing — permanent or temporary. We’ve written about it ourselves in terms of its regenerative effect on the organ systems of the body.
People can generally expect to see an improvement in sleep quality, weight loss, decreased blood pressure, lowered diabetes risk, less frequent bouts of sickness, and a liver on the way to repairing itself. Not to mention that you’re saving money, saving time, and increasing mental clarity.
But there’s another lens through which to view your body’s response to abstaining from alcohol.
It’s not something habit-drinkers consider much, beyond remembering sometimes that beer and wine are fermented and fermentation is good for the gut, right?
Well… it’s not wrong. Fermentation makes for a healthier digestive system because fermented foods have already begun to break down before you even eat them.
What that means is when you do eat them, the food digests more easily, and your gut doesn’t have to work so hard at it, which reduces harmful sugars and inflammation.
But here’s where fermented alcohols are different: the acid in them cuts the effects of the fermentation.
Not only that… but alcohol is a toxin. Your body reacts to it like it would a poison.
That doesn’t mean you need to swear it off forever — the body is resilient and can handle and heal from most things in moderation.
Since we know how vital the gut’s microbiome is to just about every function of a human life…
You ought to know what mechanisms are moving inside the gut when you drink alcohol, should you choose to participate.
How You Digest Alcohol
Most people understand that drinking alcohol can damage the liver.
The reason? The liver’s job is to filter toxins out of the body. When it encounters alcohol, it has to metabolize the ethanol and becomes over-exerted if you’re a regular heavy drinker. When you stop drinking alcohol, you not only give the liver a break, you also allow it to filter other toxins in the body.
Now in the digestive system itself…
20% of the alcohol you ingest is absorbed by the stomach. The other 80% is absorbed through the small intestine.
Alcohol causes the stomach to produce too much gastric acid, causing stomach discomfort as the pH balance changes and in some cases gastritis.
Alcohol also damages the cells designated for food digestion, making eating a more difficult experience, and also thinning the lining of the stomach.
Finally, and perhaps with the most disastrous consequences, alcohol changes the composition of the microbiome. It feeds harmful bacteria and starves good bacteria. We know what happens next…
The gut becomes inflamed and the junctions connecting the intestines loosen, allowing outside bacteria in that doesn’t belong there, and inside bacteria to leak into the rest of the body.
So drinking alcohol regularly and in abundance can lead to leaky gut, irritated tummies, and poor digestion.
Is that the final word?
Should We Hammer the Last Nail?
Although studies vary — from allowing 14 units of alcohol every week per the NHS to newer studies claiming total abstinence is the only guaranteed safety — most people know what drinking too much feels like.
It feels like being bloated, brain-foggy, tired, craving carbs, anxious, and generally less manageable than sobriety feels.
Should you decide to continue to consume alcohol in moderation…
You definitely have options that won’t wreak havoc in your digestive system.
Red wine, for example, has been found to feed bacteria that promotes gut health, likely due to its polyphenol content, and reduce harmful gut bacteria, like Clostridium. Champagne also contains a high amount of phenolic acids, which feeds helpful bacteria. Whiskey is another alcohol with a heavy polyphenol count, as is beer (which also boasts B vitamins).
Gin, made from juniper berries, has not been confirmed as gut-healthy, but is certainly less destructive than other varieties.
Vodka, and other drinks that are mainly alcohol, are the worst alcohol you can drink for your gut health. It can only harm the gut.
The choice is yours.
But knowing what alcohol can do to the digestive tract, moderation and preventive, bolstering efforts would certainly be wise.