Gastritis is inflammation of the stomach caused by damage to its lining by irritants. Alcohol use is one of the most common causes. While symptoms are sometimes mild, gastritis can leave you feeling quite ill, and can lead to life-threatening complications in certain cases.
Below, we’ll discuss the basics of gastritis and alcohol, how you can protect your stomach, and how you can help it recover if you’re already experiencing this condition.
What is Alcoholic Gastritis?
Alcoholic gastritis is stomach inflammation due to alcohol consumption. Both large and small amounts of alcohol can cause gastritis, and the condition can be chronic or acute.
Chronic alcohol use, especially binging, leads to thinning of the stomach lining and decreased stomach acid production1. This makes it easier for harmful bacteria to colonize the gastrointestinal tract and cause infections. Alcohol also irritates the mucous membranes in the stomach; even a single episode of binge drinking can cause inflammation, leading to acute gastritis.
Genetic predisposition and exposure to other stomach irritants determine how much damage is done. But chronic gastritis can lead to complications such as ulcers that may even require surgery.
What Causes Alcoholic Gastritis?
The stomach lining keeps acid and enzymes inside the stomach and away from healthy body tissue. Your stomach contains a number of harsh or caustic substances, including hydrochloric acid (a strong acid that can dissolve nails)2, and enzymes that break down protein. These help you digest your food, but they can also damage your tissue if they come into contact with it.
The stomach protects itself by secreting bicarbonate3, a base that neutralizes stomach acid before it damages the stomach’s lining. It also secretes a thick layer of mucus that acts as a barrier. Finally, blood flow to the stomach and chemicals called prostaglandins help protect the stomach lining.
Even with all these protections in place, however, the stomach lining can still be damaged. The risk for gastritis increases as alcohol use is combined with other factors that injure the lining of the stomach, such as:
- Steroid medications
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Spicy foods
- A high-fat diet
- Excessive and chronic stress
- Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacterial infection
- Viral, fungal, and parasitic infections
- Autoimmune disorders
Age can also be a factor. As you get older, the stomach lining thins. The blood supply to the stomach also slows, as does the rate of stomach lining repair.
Alcoholic Gastritis Symptoms
Many people with gastritis do not initially experience symptoms. The most common symptom of acute gastritis is a sensation of pain or pressure just under the ribs. Other common symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- An uncomfortable feeling of fullness
Long-term exposure to irritants, such as alcohol, can cause chronic gastritis4. As the stomach lining continues to be worn away and blood vessels are exposed to stomach acid, you might notice blood in your vomit, or dark, tarry stools that have a pungent odor.
As microscopic amounts of blood are released into the gastrointestinal tract, you may develop iron-deficiency anemia. This is because your body cannot produce red blood cells fast enough, which means there are not enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to all the tissues in your body. As a result, you may develop these additional symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Pale skin
You may also notice your heartbeat is much faster. Your heart tries to compensate for the decreased number of red blood cells by circulating your blood more quickly. Without medical care, the bleeding may continue, putting a strain on your cardiovascular system.
Read More: Why Does Alcohol Make My Heart Race?
How Long Does Alcoholic Gastritis Last?
The healing time for alcohol-induced gastritis depends on two factors: how long you have had gastritis, and whether you have removed the irritants that caused it.
If you have only had gastritis for a short period, the healing time should be short (generally a week or so), but only if your stomach is no longer exposed to alcohol and other irritants.
If gastritis is chronic, the healing process may take months. Besides abstaining from alcohol use, you may need to take medications to help your stomach heal, eat a bland diet, take antibiotics, and learn to manage chronic stress if it is a problem.
Complications and Long-Term Health Impacts
A single episode of heavy drinking can damage the lining of the stomach enough to cause bleeding. Over time, chronic alcohol use can break down the stomach’s protective barrier, leading to changes in its structure. The risk for gastrointestinal bleeding increases.
Gastrointestinal bleeding can easily turn into a medical emergency5. It can even be lethal if the bleeding is not stopped, or the acid wears through completely and leaks stomach contents into the abdomen. If this serious condition should occur, life-threatening peritonitis, sepsis from a blood infection, and multiorgan failure may occur.
Over time, chronic gastritis also increases the risk of gastric cancer6.
Alcoholic Gastritis Treatment
The stomach lining can repair itself if it is not too heavily damaged. The first and most important step is to stop drinking alcohol, so that the damage does not continue.
The next step is to see your doctor. Gastritis can become serious, especially if it is chronic and the lining of the stomach has thinned and become damaged.
In addition to treatment programs to help you to abstain from, or at least decrease, your alcohol use, your doctor may suggest:
- Taking an antibiotic to treat an H. pylori infection
- Taking a medication called a proton pump inhibitor to decrease acid production in the stomach and help it heal
- Using antacids to neutralize the acidity in the stomach
- Using probiotics to promote the growth of healthy bacteria
- Eating smaller meals that are low in saturated and trans fats
If you have gastritis, it is not safe to continue to drink alcohol. Deeper and deeper layers of the stomach may become damaged, increasing your risk for gastrointestinal bleeding, anemia, or even stomach cancer.
If you need help reducing your alcohol intake, Ria Health is an online alcohol treatment option that can help you cut back or even abstain altogether. Personal coaching sessions, expert medical counseling, online tools, and support groups are all available to help you develop a healthier relationship with alcohol.
Learn more about how our program can help you cut back on your terms, and improve your overall health.