How does alcohol affect your gut health?

How does alcohol affect your gut health?

A frothy beer or glass of wine can enhance the flavor of your meal and calm your mood. But what does alcohol do to the trillions of microorganisms that live in your gut?

As with much of microbiome science, “there’s still a lot we don’t know,” said Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, a physician-scientist at the National Institutes of Health who studies alcohol use and addiction.

That said, it’s clear that happy microbes are essential for normal digestion, immune function, and gut health. When scientists began exploring how drinking alcohol affects your gut, they discovered that drinking too much may have some unpleasant consequences.

Dr. Cynthia Hsu, a gastroenterologist at the University of California, San Diego, said most existing research on alcohol and the microbiome has focused on people who regularly drink large amounts of alcohol.

For example, some studies have found that people with alcohol use disorder (the inability to control or stop problematic drinking) tend to have an imbalance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in their guts. This is called dysbiosis, and it’s often associated with more severe inflammation and disease than a healthier microbiome, Dr. Xu said.

Alcoholics with dysbiosis may also have a gut lining that is “more leaky,” or more permeable, Dr. Leggio said. He says a healthy gut lining acts as a barrier between the inside of your gut, which is filled with microorganisms, food and potentially harmful toxins, and the rest of your body.

Dr. Xu added that when the intestinal lining breaks down, bacteria and toxins can escape into the bloodstream and travel to the liver, causing liver inflammation and damage.

Preliminary research suggests an unhealthy gut may even contribute to alcohol cravings, said Dr. Jasmohan Bajaj, a hepatologist at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Richmond Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

For example, in a 2023 study, researchers looked at the microbiomes of 71 people aged 18 to 25 who did not have an alcohol use disorder. Those who reported more frequent binge drinking (defined as four or more drinks in about two hours for women, or five or more drinks for men) had microbiome changes that were associated with stronger alcohol cravings. The study also adds to previous research that found binge drinking is associated with higher blood markers of inflammation.

However, none of these studies prove that alcohol causes dysbiosis in humans. The link is more pronounced in animal studies, but in human studies it is more difficult for researchers to control for factors such as diet and other health conditions.

Federal guidelines define moderate drinking as no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. Jennifer Barb, a clinical bioinformatics scientist at the National Institutes of Health, said there is little research on how alcohol consumption affects the gut microbiome.

Scientists have found that people who drink light to moderate amounts of alcohol have a more diverse gut microbiome than those who don’t drink at all – a trait often associated with a healthy gut. This could be down to other dietary or lifestyle factors, Dr. Babu said, or it could be that something in the alcoholic drink may be beneficial to the microbiome — although it might not be ethanol.

For example, in a 2020 study of 916 women in the United Kingdom who drank two drinks a day or less, researchers found that women who drank red wine (or white wine in smaller amounts) had a more diverse gut microbiome than women who did not drink wine. Sex is higher. No such link was found with beer or spirits. The researchers speculated that polyphenols, compounds found in grape skins and found in high concentrations in red wine, might explain their results.

But you don’t need alcohol to find polyphenols — they’re also found in grapes and most other fruits and vegetables, as well as in many herbs, coffee and teas, says John Cryan, a neuroscientist who studies the microbiome at University College Cork in Ireland. polyphenols. .

In general, eating a variety of plant foods and fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, and kimchi can also improve microbiome diversity.

Dr. Babu said researchers looked at the microbiomes of people receiving treatment for alcohol use disorder and found that within two to three weeks after people stopped drinking, their gut microbes began to show signs of recovery and their gut linings changed. Get less “leakage”. But, she adds, people who receive treatment for alcohol use disorder also often start eating healthier and sleeping better, which can also improve gut health.

Dr. Leggio said it’s unclear how, or even if, abstaining from or reducing alcohol consumption affects the microbiome of moderate drinkers. But he added that we do know that alcohol can cause acid reflux, inflammation of the stomach wall and gastrointestinal bleeding, and can increase the risk of several cancers, including esophageal, colon and rectal cancer.

So there’s “no question,” Dr. Leggio says, that drinking less alcohol is worth the effort for your health.

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