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Excessive Drinking and the Digestive Tract

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Alcoholism related image Photo: Getty Images

If you find yourself having to reason with a loved one as to why he or she should cut down on alcohol, perhaps this will be ammunition for you:

Heavy drinking can wreak havoc on the digestive tract.

The concerns include poor diet, where you are replacing healthy foods and beverages with beer, wine and hard liquor.

But even more serious are the risks of alcoholic liver disease and chronic pancreatitis, to name just a couple of digestive ailments.

Of course, moderate alcohol use has been touted for its various benefits, including heart health. But evaluate whether enjoyment of alcohol has risen to a contentious issue between you and your loved one, especially if you fear health issues.

Every situation is different, but the Alcohol Use and Health Fact Sheet from the Centers for Disease Control offers good guidelines for when enough is enough.

In defining patterns, the CDC says binge drinking occurs when women have four or more drinks during a single occasion and men, five or more drinks.

Heavy drinking is defined as, for women, more than one drink per day on average and for men, more than two drinks per day on average.

Excessive drinking can encompass binge drinking, heavy drinking or both, the CDC adds.

And now for several, but not all, of the reasons that overdoing it on alcohol can damage your digestive tract:

Cirrhosis -- Picture it as a scarring of the liver that occurs over time, making it harder for your liver to process nutrients and produce bile, among other tasks. Your digestive tract cannot function without your liver.

The two main causes of cirrhosis are alcohol-related liver disease and chronic hepatitis C.

According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, the amount of alcohol it takes to damage the liver can vary from person to person. But if you’re a man consuming three to four drinks a day or a woman having two to three drinks a day, liver damage and cirrhosis are a possibility.

Liver cancer, or hepatocellular carcinoma -- The NDDIC says that it can be an outcome of cirrhosis, and as you may know, it has a high mortality rate.

Heartburn -- Alcoholic drinks always crop up on the list of foods that can trigger heartburn. The NDDIC says that incidences of heartburn, or acid indigestion, twice a week or more might signal gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. When it escalates to GERD, the concerns become scars and strictures on the esophagus lining.

Chronic pancreatitis -- Heavy alcohol use is the leading cause of this disease, which creates an inflammation of the pancreas that can result in bleeding, infection and permanent tissue damage.

In addition, there’s acute pancreatitis, also linked to heavy alcohol use. It can come on suddenly and painfully and can be life-threatening if not treated quickly. One acute attack, if it damages the pancreatic duct, can lead to chronic pancreatitis, said the NDDIC.

Also providing compelling reasons to watch alcohol intake is the “Long-Term Health Risks” portion of the CDC’s Alcohol Use and Health Fact Sheet. As far as digestive diseases go, the list includes gastritis and cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver and colon, and for hepatitis C patients, worsening of liver function.

For you and your loved one, the question is, are all these risks worth taking for the sake of alcohol?


“Cirrhosis.” National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Web. 25 Jan. 2012.

“Heartburn, Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER), and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Web. 25 Jan. 2012.

“Pancreatitis.” National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Web. 25 Jan. 2012.

“Alcohol Use and Health Fact Sheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 25 Jan. 2012.

Reviewed January 26, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jessica Obert

Add a Comment2 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Remember too, Dark beer and red wine also contribute to excess gas production

January 26, 2012 - 12:52pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

Great point, Jill!

Puristat Digestive Specialist

January 26, 2012 - 12:53pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.



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