Here’s a toast to those who either drink in moderation or don’t drink at all. By drinking, of course, we’re talking about the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Why does it matter? Because consuming alcohol can damage your digestive system and can increase your risk of cancer and liver disease.
How Your Digestive System Processes Alcohol
Your digestive system includes more than just your stomach and intestines. It also includes your mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, pancreas, and anus. Each of these organs serves a purpose in the process of ingesting, digesting, and absorbing the nutrients in the foods you eat and removing waste from your body. Frequent or excess consumption of alcohol can damage these organs.
That’s because your digestive system doesn’t treat alcohol like it does the good nutrients found in food. Your body prioritizes the elimination of alcohol ahead of other nutrients. It absorbs alcohol throughout the digestive system for speedy elimination.
Not only does alcohol metabolism occur in your liver, but also in other cells in your body where it is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde which can damage DNA and prevent cells from repairing the damage. In fact, alcohol and acetaldehyde are classified as Group 1 carcinogens – cancer-causing agents – equal in their toxicity to tobacco smoke and asbestos.
Here’s how alcohol affects each portion of your digestive system:
- Your mouth and throat – Alcohol quickly penetrates your mouth’s saliva and, when converted to acetaldehyde, can damage the tissues in your mouth. A British study found that approximately one-third of mouth and throat cancers were caused by drinking alcohol. Not only that, but when combined with smoking, alcohol may increase the risk of mouth cancer.
- Your esophagus – Once you swallow alcohol, it can damage the cells of your esophagus (the long tube running from your mouth to your stomach) and can increase your risk of cancer of the esophagus. Also, it can cause acid reflux, which also can damage cells and increase your cancer risk.
- Your stomach – Here is where alcohol lingers for a while, being absorbed into both your bloodstream and small intestine. Whether you drink occasionally or regularly, alcohol can interfere with stomach function. For one thing, it can affect acid production, diminishing your stomach’s ability to destroy harmful bacteria that enters the stomach, allowing it to enter your upper small intestine.
This can also damage the mucous cells meant to protect your stomach wall from being damaged by acid and digestive enzymes, thus inducing inflammation and lesions. In addition, beverages with more than 15 percent alcohol volume can delay stomach emptying, which can cause bacterial degradation of food and abdominal discomfort.
- Your liver – The main role of this vital organ is to remove toxins from the body. However, the liver breaks down alcohol in several different ways, all of which lead to the conversion of alcohol into acetaldehyde, which poisons cells and causes inflammatory changes in the liver. This can lead to fatty liver disease, which is an increase in fat production in the liver. It can also lead to cell and tissue damage from the toxic by-products produced when alcohol is metabolized.
- Your intestines – Whatever food that is undigested passes from the small intestine to the large intestine and is then expelled from the body through the anus. Alcohol reaches the large intestine by way of your bloodstream, where it can increase the risk of bowel cancer. Research suggests that people who drink moderately (as many as four drinks a day) and heavily (more than four drinks per day) are at a higher risk of colorectal cancer – an increase of 21 percent and 52 percent, respectively, compared to people who don’t drink alcohol.
Who Can Help Me Maintain a Healthy Digestive System?
If you would like to know more about the link between alcohol consumption and digestive health, or if you have specific questions or concerns, contact Austin Gastroenterology by filling out our online form or by calling the office that’s closest to you to schedule an appointment. We look forward to hearing from you.