Alcohol Intake and The Microbiome - How Much is Too Much?
Most people know too much alcohol can damage your liver, but did you know it’s also bad for your gut?
Keep reading to learn how alcohol can affect your gut microbiome, how much alcohol intake is safe if any, and healthy habits to support a happy gut–and really a happy and healthy body, given that our gut microbiome serves as our body’s Chief Architect and influences health systemically.
How Alcohol Affects Your Gut
Have you ever felt extremely bloated after a night of drinking? It’s not necessarily just because alcohol has a lot of calories and sugar (although that’s part of it). It’s also because it is directly processed in your intestine.
Alcohol intake can cause inflammation throughout the entire body. While one drink may not pose a significant issue, overindulging may cause more damage to your gut than you think.
According to recent research, excess alcohol intake may increase gut inflammation via its effect on 3 key gut functions.1
1. Gut bacteria composition and function
There are over 500 different types of bacteria, otherwise known as gut flora, present in the intestines. Excessive alcohol intake can disrupt the balance of this gut flora, making it easier for harmful bacteria to take over.
This often leads to the release of toxic substances by these bacteria, activating proteins and immune cells that promote inflammation in the process.2
2. Increased intestinal permeability
Alcohol intake is also linked to increased permeability of the protective gut barrier. In doing this, it may allow harmful substances to enter the gut into the bloodstream.
For example, some people with higher alcohol intake had increased intestinal permeability, making it easier for toxins to enter where they shouldn’t, including the bloodstream and the liver.3
3. Intestinal immunity
Have you found you seem to catch a cold more easily after a night of drinking?
This is because too much alcohol can also affect your immune system, leading to impaired intestinal immunity and a heightened inflammatory response. In particular, research has shown alcohol can decrease the immune response in the gut, increasing susceptibility to infection.
In other studies, alcohol may trigger an immune response that promotes inflammation and the release of inflammatory cells.4
Ways to Support Your Gut Health
You can support the health of your gut in several ways, such as by reducing stress, eating a balanced diet, and upping your water intake.
While more research is needed to confirm these habits directly reduce damage from alcohol intake, they are healthy habits to practice for overall health.
Studies show a link between stress and increased numbers of stress hormones and gut inflammation.5
These altered hormone levels can increase cravings for highly palatable, high-sugar foods. These foods are the types of foods disease-causing bacteria thrive on, which may keep more of these unwanted bacteria around.6
Finding healthy ways to manage stress that doesn’t involve drinking alcohol is key. A few ideas are practicing yoga, journaling, meditation, or going for a daily morning walk.
Eat a balanced diet
Eating a variety of nutritious foods can support a healthy, balanced gut and reduce inflammation. This includes plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, and tempeh.
On the contrary, limiting highly processed, sugar-laden foods like fast food, sweets, and sugar-sweetened beverages is equally beneficial.
Up your water intake
Not only does it hydrate you, but drinking water on a night out can also slow down your alcohol intake.7
Drinking a glass of water after an alcoholic drink can also fill you up and help you to drink less overall.
Additionally, alcohol dehydrates you, even if you had just one or two drinks. Staying hydrated with more water prevents constipation, aids in digestion, and helps your digestive system to function more optimally.
How Much Alcohol Intake is Safe?
Knowing the risks associated with drinking alcohol, should you avoid it completely? Not necessarily, but do your gut a favor by limiting it as much as possible.
The general recommendation is to limit to 1 standard alcoholic drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. One standard drink is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.9
Having one drink per day, if you choose, is much safer for your health and your gut than having 7 drinks in one day once per week. Anything over 1-2 drinks can be considered binge drinking.
If you are addicted to alcohol or have trouble sticking to just one drink, speak to your doctor about how to stop. And if you aren’t currently drinking alcohol, it’s not recommended to start.
Overindulging in alcohol can damage your gut in more ways than one. You can protect your gut health and feel your best by limiting alcohol as much as possible, eating a gut-friendly diet filled with fiber and fermented foods, and keeping stress at bay.
Bishehsari F, et al. (2017). [Mechanisms of alcohol-induced gut inflammation]. Alcohol Research Current Review, PubMed Central.
Rao RK, et al. (2004). [Intestinal permeability and alcoholic liver disease]. Jun;286(6):G881-4. doi: 10.1152/ajpgi.00006.2004. PMID: 15132946. American Journal of Physiology. Gastrointestinal Liver Physiology, PubMed.gov.
Purohit V, et al. (2008). [Study of alcohol, intestinal bacterial growth and intestinal permeability]. Alcohol, PubMed.gov.
Sarkar D, et al. (2015). [Alcohol and immunity]. Alcohol Research Current Review, PubMed Central.
Madison A, et al. (2019). [Study on stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota]. Curr Opin Behav Sci, HHS Public Access, PubMed Central.
Chao AM, et al. (2017). [Study on appetite-related hormones and stress]. Obesity (Silver Spring). HHS Public Access, PubMed Central.
Vanhaecke T, et al. (2022). [Drinking water source, intake and gut microbiota]. The Journal of Nutrition, PubMed Central.
Nash V, et al. (2018). [Effects of wine polyphenols on gut microbiota]. Food Research International, PubMed.gov.
Alcohol and Public Health. (n.d.). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cdc.gov.