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Does Alcohol Cause Inflammation? Drinking and the Risk of Chronic Illness

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As scientists investigate the causes of dangerous and deadly diseases, they’ve found one factor common to almost all of them: chronic inflammation. Could alcohol be connected?

Chronic inflammation plays a role in cancer, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and possibly depression. It’s also been linked to alcohol-related medical conditions, like liver disease.

Recent research suggests that alcohol causes inflammation in the intestines and impairs the body’s ability to regulate that inflammation. In turn, inflammation worsens alcohol-related organ damage.

Ultimately, excessive drinking can have serious implications for long-term health.

What is Inflammation?

alcohol and inflammation, bruised fingers
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Inflammation is an important part of the human immune system. When you’re injured or attacked by harmful bacteria or viruses, inflammation is part of your body’s natural response.

Think of swollen glands when you have a sore throat, or the way an infected cut becomes warm and red. It doesn’t feel great, but these are signs of your body fighting off infection.

Your immune system sends blood, fluid, and protein to a damaged or infected area. Swelling and heat are stimulated to protect and repair damaged tissue. Once you’re healed, the mission is complete. The inflammation should then vanish along with the infection.

Sometimes, however, the body’s healing powers go wrong. The inflammation used to fight against sudden infection or injury can become chronic. Some people experience a constant low level of inflammation, which can have a severe negative impact on their overall health.

The Effects of Chronic Inflammation

When you have chronic inflammation, your body is in a constant state of high alert. Under this pressure, arteries and organs can break down, leading to the development of diseases.

These effects are wide-ranging, and may include asthma, arthritis, ulcers, periodontitis, Crohn’s disease, sinusitis, and hepatitis. Eventually, diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and other serious conditions may occur.

Inflammatory cells anywhere in the body can affect the rest of your system. This means that the gut inflammation caused by long-term, excessive alcohol consumption can promote inflammation throughout the body.

Treating this problem means walking a fine line. Since inflammatory cells help fight off infection, effective treatment must control the inflammation without eliminating it entirely.

To make matters worse, it’s not always possible to pinpoint the root cause of chronic inflammation. However, lifestyle does seem to be a factor. Sleep, diet, exercise, stress levels, and smoking or consuming alcohol all have an impact.

How Does Alcohol Contribute to Chronic Inflammation?

Heavy drinking over an extended period causes several changes in the body that can lead to intestinal inflammation.

Over the long term, this inflammation causes organ dysfunction throughout the body, especially in the liver and the brain.

Dysbiosis

First, alcohol disrupts the balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria in the gut. This imbalance is called dysbiosis, and it negatively impacts your immune system. Alcohol also promotes the overgrowth of bacteria, which further disrupts gut health.

An increase in chemicals called endotoxins is one result. Endotoxins activate the proteins and immune cells that promote inflammation.

Intestinal Permeability

alcohol and inflammation bacteria
Photo by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay

The walls of your intestines act as a bodyguard for your bloodstream. This barrier allows the absorption of key nutrients from the gastrointestinal tract, and prevents the absorption of noxious substances.

Excessive alcohol consumption may cause this barrier to become “leaky” or permeable. As a result, your bloodstream’s bodyguard becomes ineffective. This means bacteria and the toxins they create can now infiltrate the bloodstream, leaving the gut and spreading to other organs.

In people with alcohol use disorder, the intestine sometimes becomes permeable enough to allow the passage of large macromolecules, such as endotoxins. As stated above, endotoxins help promote inflammation.

Therefore, not only does alcohol increase the production of endotoxins in the gut, it also decreases the strength of the intestinal barrier that might block them. This allows these endotoxins—and the resulting inflammation—to spread throughout the body via the bloodstream.

Inhibited Immune Response

Normally, when your body faces an imbalance or a threat, you can count on your immune system to keep it in check. Unfortunately, alcohol negatively impacts your immune system as well.

A study on mice found that alcohol slows the intestine’s immune response for attacking harmful bacteria. Alcohol also appears to suppress a variety of other molecules and cells that are essential to immune response.

Additionally, alcohol can harm your general organ functions and interactions. In healthy individuals, these interactions play a role in reducing the harmful effects of endotoxins. The liver, for example, detoxifies these substances, while the central nervous system contributes to anti-inflammatory regulation.

Drinking too much seems to compromise both your immune system and the support your organs give it. As a result, not only can alcohol create problems in your body, it can limit your body’s ability to correct them.

Summary: How Excessive Drinking Impairs Your Health

Altogether, excessive alcohol consumption:

  • Increases the production of harmful bacteria and endotoxins in the gut, which promotes inflammation
  • Weakens the intestinal barrier, allowing harmful bacteria and endotoxins to pass from the gut into the bloodstream, spreading to the organs
  • Inhibits the body’s immune response by suppressing key molecules and cells, and impairing the functions and interactions of key organs

Together, these effects lead to chronic inflammation, which can ultimately cause organ damage and disease. Alcohol-induced gut inflammation is linked to gastrointestinal cancers, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, inflammation of the brain, and more.

Inflammation of the gut might even influence the psychological aspects of alcohol addiction. These include depression, anxiety, alcohol cravings, and poor selective attention.

What Can You Do To Fight Inflammation?

alcohol and inflammation table with drinks
Photo by Nathz Guardia on Unsplash

Many researchers now believe that long-term inflammation is the root of a wide range of chronic illnesses. Still, the question remains: How do we treat it?

Right now, all we can do is work on the factors within our control. One of these, of course, is alcohol consumption.

The link between alcohol consumption, inflammation, and severe health issues may be alarming, but it’s never too late. Although not all of the effects can be reversed, your body has tricks up its sleeve—including a class of regenerative molecules called pro-resolving mediators. These help repair the damage inflammation causes. This means that the sooner you make healthy lifestyle changes, the sooner your body will begin working to restore and rejuvenate itself.

Of course, it can be challenging to quit or cut back on alcohol. At Ria Health, we understand this. We’ve created a convenient, easier way to reduce or stop drinking through telemedicine. Members get access to prescription medications to reduce cravings, recovery coaching, and digital tools to track their progress. Through our smartphone app, we provide support anytime, anywhere, every step of the way.

If you’re ready to fight back against the damaging effects of alcohol, we’re here to help. Read more about how it works, or sign up for a call to learn more today.

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