How alcohol affects your microbiome
Let’s start with what exactly happens when you drink. First, alcohol is absorbed in your upper intestinal tract and then transported to your liver via the portal vein. Much like the gut-brain axis, there is a gut-liver axis whereby your gut and liver communicate. Drinking too much alcohol can disrupt this gut-liver axis causing a myriad of problems. The question, of course, is how much alcohol is too much?
How much alcohol is too much?
For most people, drinking in moderation is safe and won’t cause problems in your gut. “Moderation” means no more than a drink a day for women, or two drinks a day for men. Anything more than that is more likely to cause gut problems. What problems are we talking about? Setting aside the obvious health issues caused by long term alcoholism (ahem, acid reflux, cirrhosis, pancreatitis), here are a few problems that directly and immediately affect your gut lining…
Drinking in excess can disrupt the production of the mucus that lines your stomach which causes the lining to become inflamed, i.e. gastritis. This inflammation leads to increased acid production which then causes abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. If you drink like this too often, it can be a precursor to more serious conditions such as ulcers, anemia, even stomach cancer.
Drinking too much alcohol has been shown to reduce diversity in your microbiome, increase the bacteria that causes irritation, and decrease the bacteria that helps with digestion. Talk about a triple threat. Alcohol also agitates the intestines, causing them to speed up digestion and contract quickly. This causes—you guessed it—diarrhea.
The truth is, too much alcohol disturbs sugar digestion and the balance of bacteria in your gut. This can lead to an overgrowth of a yeast called Candida which can cause an increase of gas and bloating. While any type of alcohol can cause this, it’s more commonly associated with beer than wine or liquor, hence the term “beer belly.”
Good times, right? With all of these side effects of alcohol, you might wonder why anyone ever drinks at all. Well, there is some good news when it comes to alcohol and your gut.
The good news about drinking and your gut
Most everyone knows that polyphenols are good for you, but they’re particularly good for your gut microbiome as they create a supportive environment for beneficial bacteria, such as Akkermansia muciniphila, to thrive. Therefore, due to its high polyphenol content, drinking red wine in moderation may actually be good for your health. And hard kombucha? Well, the jury is still out on whether a significant amount of live probiotic strains can survive in certain alcohol percentages, but kombucha is brewed with natural ingredients such as black and green tea which contain polyphenols. So while it may never be considered a superfood, hard kombucha is still a better choice than your classic Singapore Sling.
Please note: we are not condoning drinking red wine or hard kombucha solely for health reasons. The healthiest option is not drinking alcohol at all. However, if you do drink, here are a few other tips on how to minimize any negative side effects:
- As you drink alcohol, drink water, as well. And never drink alcohol to quench your thirst.
- Don’t drink alcohol on an empty stomach.
- Be aware of your food choices while drinking. Drinking in excess can make you crave highly processed foods.
- And of course, the golden rule when drinking: don’t drive.
We couldn’t end this post about alcohol and the gut without mentioning how interesting it is that before we drink with friends we often make a toast to health. Santé in French, salud in Spanish, prost in German, sláinte in Scottish, gesondheid in Afrikaans, all of these toasts an exercise in the shared acknowledgment that good health is everything.
Cheers to that, and to your gut!