When most people think about problems associated with alcohol abuse, they think about the strain alcoholism puts on family relationships, the likelihood for an alcoholic to engage in risky behaviors, such as driving while intoxicated, and diseases of the liver.
However, alcohol abuse can lead to severe injury of the digestive tract. Some of the problems are more mild, such as increased likelihood of heartburn, but some are much more serious, such as internal bleeding and increasing the likelihood of cancerous tumors. When alcohol is consumed, it is quickly absorbed into your bloodstream through the lining of the stomach and small intestine, skipping much of the digestion process. This direct absorption and contact with these organs contributes to alcohol's effect on the digestive system. Examining alcohol's interactions with your internal organs can help explain the following consequences of alcohol abuse experienced by your stomach and intestines.
One of the first things that alcohol can affect is your esophagus. Alcohol impairs the ability of the esophageal muscles to contract. These muscles protect the delicate tissue of your body from the acid in your stomach, and by slowing them down, they can't seal out gastric acid or work to push the acid back down to your stomach when it is refluxed. This does not require long term alcohol use, and many people who don't abuse alcohol still can get heartburn when drinking. However, alcohol abuse damages the protective mucous in your esophagus and can lead to changes in your cells that cause over-production of gastric acid, making the symptoms of acid reflux much stronger and longer lasting.
Alcoholism damages the mucous membranes (mucosa) at the junction of your stomach and esophagus. The damaged mucosa typically cannot protect you from the stress placed on your organs that occurs when you vomit. Continued retching or vomiting combined with your already damaged mucosa can lead to large tears in the mucus membranes, which leads that lead to massive internal bleeding, which is called Mallory-Weiss syndrome.
-Gastritis and Stomach Lesions-
Even small amounts of alcohol can increase the production of gastric acid. When alcohol is abused, these increases in acid can damage the mucosa of your stomach. The acid in your stomach is strong enough to breakdown the toughest steak you could possibly eat, and without the protective mucous, your stomach doesn't have a chance.
The acid irritates your stomach, which leads to a condition called gastritis. Gastritis can cause nausea and vomiting. Heavy drinking can cause your stomach to tear and bleed. Minor lesions cause painful ulcers that can be somewhat relieved through the use of antacid, however serious lesions lead to internal bleeding.
-Increased Likelihood of Disease-
While moderate and heavy drinking cause an increase of gastric acid production, long-term alcoholics damage the stomach to the degree that it can no longer produce the right amount of gastric acid. Stomach acid help to kill bacteria in your food before passing it to your more sensitive small intestine. Even after kicking the habit, a recovering alcoholic's stomach acid production may not fully recover, leaving them at an increased risk of illness, particularly, digestive trouble.
Just like alcohol slows down your esophagus, it also reduces the ability of your small intestine to make the muscle movements that help to digest food. Slowing this down leads to food remaining in your stomach for a longer time, which can lead to bloated feelings and gas. However, it doesn't stop your intestine from moving food through the system, and that is why alcoholics often have diarrhea.
Alcoholics' intestines experience a reduced capacity to process nutrients, particularly protein and folic acid. These nutrients are essential for the production of all healthy cells in your body.
-Cancers of the digestive system and other organs-
While alcohol itself does not seem to cause cancer, alcohol abuse combined with smoking increases the chances for someone to develop cancer in several organs, including the tongue, larynx, and esophagus. There are also studies that link habitual over-consumption of beer to cancer in the large intestine or rectum; other alcoholic beverages do not seem to increase the likelihood of these cancers.
Alcohol abuse is a serious problem. While the mental effects of alcohol abuse and potential liver damage that occur with alcoholism are highlighted in education and popular culture, the consequences of alcohol abuse to the digestive system are serious and life threatening.