Alcohol and Gut Health: Can Drinking Throw You Off Balance?

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If you generally lead a healthy lifestyle, but suffer from unexplained digestive problems, you’re not alone. The gut is a complex place, and even with all of our advancements in science we are still learning about the best way to care for it. One thing is for sure, however: If you’re drinking a lot of alcohol, it’s likely to affect your gut health.

But how much is too much? How does alcohol affect your gut? And aren’t there some types of alcohol that can actually help? Below, we’ll discuss the relationship of alcohol and gut health, and how you can keep your gut flora happy and healthy.

Effects of Alcohol on the Gut

set of scales, alcohol and gut health balance
Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which includes your mouth, stomach, and intestines, is the first part of your body to come into contact with alcohol.1 It’s probably not surprising, therefore, that excessive alcohol use can have a big impact on this area.

Some common gut-related issues linked to excessive alcohol use include:

Intestinal Inflammation

Over time, drinking too much can damage the intestinal lining and promote the growth of harmful gut flora.2 This can lead to some unpleasant symptoms of intestinal inflammation, such as cramping, aches, and digestive discomfort.


As alcohol moves through your GI tract, it can also affect the way your body produces stool. For example, drinks like beer and wine can speed up the digestive process, all while preventing your colon from absorbing as much water as it usually would.3 This is why you may experience diarrhea or other changes in bowel movements after a night out.

Acid Reflux

When it comes to alcohol and gut health, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is another risk to keep in mind. Some kinds of alcohol drinks (especially those with lower alcohol content, like beer or hard seltzer) can trigger a surge in stomach acid.4 And over time, a heavy drinking habit can harm the esophageal lining, leading to more frequent, painful symptoms of acid reflux.

Gastritis and Ulcers

If you’re a heavy drinker, you may be more likely to get stomach ulcers or a condition called alcoholic gastritis. Alcoholic gastritis happens when your stomach lining starts to erode, or become worn down, from too much drinking. When this happens, you could end up with symptoms like nausea, bloating, and a gnawing sensation in your stomach. And even though alcohol itself may not directly cause ulcers, it is considered a risk factor for developing them.5

Bacterial Imbalance

The delicate balance of bacteria in your gut is another factor to look out for when it comes to alcohol and gut health. Too much drinking can kill off healthy gut flora while encouraging the growth of harmful ones. In turn, it can create an imbalance that leads to digestive problems, fatigue, and even mental health issues down the line.

Alcohol and Leaky Gut

Your GI tract is naturally permeable to allow nutrients and minerals to pass through the intestinal lining and into your bloodstream. But a healthy GI tract also acts as a protective barrier to keep toxins out of your blood.

Excessive alcohol use can weaken this barrier, by damaging the cells that line the intestinal walls. This condition is also known as leaky gut syndrome, and allows toxins, bacteria, and even food particles to flow out of the GI tract and into the bloodstream.6

A leaky gut can increase inflammation, and has been linked to multiple other health conditions—including diabetes, arthritis, allergies, and even mental health problems.

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Alcohol and Stomach Bacteria

In addition to increased gut permeability, heavy drinking can throw your gut microbiome off balance, resulting in an overgrowth of bad bacteria.

Your gut contains more than 500 types of good and bad bacteria.7 A healthy gut achieves homeostasis or equilibrium when the good bacteria and bad bacteria balance each other out.

Chronic, excessive drinking tilts the balance towards the more harmful bacteria. These, in turn, can release toxins that worsen gut inflammation. But that’s only the beginning. An imbalanced gut may lead to:

  • Digestive problems, such as constipation, diarrhea, gas, and bloating
  • Increased fatigue and lack of energy
  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Food allergies and intolerances
  • Skin problems
  • Difficulty regulating emotions

Does Alcohol Kill Gut Bacteria?

does alcohol kill harmful bacteria like salmonella?
Photo by Arek Socha on Pixabay

Not only can alcohol throw your gut out of balance, it can also kill some types of gut bacteria. This isn’t surprising, considering alcohol is incorporated in disinfectants like hand sanitizer and mouthwash.

This may not always be a bad thing. For example, moderate alcohol consumption can help kill bacteria like salmonella, which causes food poisoning.8 However, chronic, heavy alcohol use can also kill the good bacteria your body requires to function well.

Alcohol and Probiotics

You’ve probably heard that probiotics are beneficial for your digestion and overall health. But can you take them while drinking?

So far, there hasn’t been evidence to suggest any harmful interactions between alcohol and probiotics. In fact, some probiotic drinks—like kombucha—contain very small amounts of alcohol due to the fermentation process. However, too much alcohol can kill off essential gut flora, including those in your probiotic supplements.9 And if you drink too much before or after taking them, it may make them less effective.

Overall, if you want to get the most out of your probiotics, your best bet is to save them for a time when you won’t be drinking.

Best Alcohol for Gut Health

Excessive alcohol use is bad for your gut health no matter what type you choose. But there are some alcoholic beverages that might have positive impacts in moderation.

Red wine is one example. This beverage is rich in polyphenols—micronutrients which may increase good gut bacteria, and reduce inflammation.10

According to research, however, one serving every week or two is enough to benefit your gut. And many types of fruit have more polyphenols than red wine.

In summary, if you are a social drinker who rarely has more than a glass or two, alcohol is unlikely to damage your gut. It may even have some minor benefits. However, chronic, excessive drinking is dangerous for your gut microbiome—and many aspects of your health in general.

What You Can Do to Improve Gut Health

If you’re worried about the impact of alcohol on your gut, the good news is that there are steps you can take to improve your digestive health. And many of these are simple, everyday changes that you can start working toward today. 

To get started, you can:

  • Eat a spectrum of colorful, whole foods. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, along with probiotic-rich foods like kimchi or yogurt, can have a positive effect on your gut microbiome.
  • Include moderate exercise in your routine. Moderate exercise, like swimming, biking, or light jogging, has been shown to positively impact gut health.11
  • Manage your stress levels. If you’re prone to digestive issues, stress can worsen your symptoms. Practice mindfulness, self-care, and fun hobbies to help keep your stress manageable.
  • Drink plenty of water. Water can help ease constipation, flush out toxins, and promote healthy digestion.
  • Limit your refined sugars, highly-processed foods, and alcohol. Keeping these to a minimum can help you reduce inflammation and support healthy gut flora. 

If you’d like to cut back on drinking, but are finding it harder than you expected, there are new ways of getting help. Ria Health offers comprehensive support from an app on your smartphone. You don’t even need to identify as an alcoholic!

Learn more about how it works, or speak with a member of our team today.


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Written By:
Ria Health Team
Ria Health’s editorial team is a group of experienced copywriters, researchers, and healthcare professionals dedicated to removing stigma and improving public knowledge around alcohol use disorder. Articles written by the “Ria Team” are collaborative works completed by several members of our writing team, fact-checked and edited to a high standard of empathy and accuracy.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.
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