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

Medically reviewed by John Mendelson, M.D. on

Table of Contents

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.

chart summary of alcohol and inflammation

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 heal, 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.

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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.


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.

What parts of the body does this affect? Can alcohol cause joint inflammation? The answer is yes. This inflammation from alcohol can affect all parts of your body. In fact, alcohol is a major risk factor for gout, a common and painful form of inflammatory arthritis. It can also trigger flare-ups in individuals living with gout.

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?

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.

How To Reduce Inflammation & Swelling From Alcohol

The surest way to reduce inflammation from alcohol is to reduce how much you drink, or even quit.

If you continue to drink, one thing you can do is hydrate. Alcohol dehydrates you, and dehydration worsens inflammation. Drink plenty of water and electrolytes before, during, and after drinking to combat the inflammatory effects of alcohol. Similarly, it’s a good idea to avoid sugary alcoholic beverages, as sugar is also known to cause inflammation.

You can also eat anti-inflammatory foods like tomatoes, olive oil, nuts, fatty fish, leafy green vegetables, and fruits such as oranges, strawberries, blueberries, and cherries. Other ways to fight inflammation include exercising for 20 minutes daily, maintaining a healthy weight, getting enough sleep, and limiting stress through relaxation and mindfulness techniques.

Although not all of the effects of inflammation from alcohol can be reversed, your body has tricks up its sleeve—including a class of regenerative molecules called pro-resolving mediators, This helps 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.

Is One Type of Alcohol Better Than Another?

If you’re wondering what alcohol causes inflammation, the unfortunate answer is all of them.

As for which alcohol causes the least amount of inflammation, wine appears to be better by comparison. For example, a review of 53 studies found that both hard liquor and beer consumption were significantly associated with the risk of gout. Wine consumption was less common among patients with this condition.

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

Much has also been made of the anti-inflammatory properties of polyphenols like resveratrol, found in red wine. Resveratrol may inhibit the inflammatory factors that can trigger heart disease. The presence of alcohol, however, means that unless you consume wine in moderation, it can still make inflammation worse, not better. And resveratrol is actually found in higher concentrations in many fresh fruits.

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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Written By:
Ashley Cullins
Ashley Cullins is a writer with a passion for creating engaging, understandable content on complex topics like addiction and mental health. She has over five years of experience writing for healthcare websites and publications. Having experienced addiction first-hand in her family, Ashley deeply connects with Ria Health’s mission to make treatment easier and more accessible. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her daughter, reading, and cooking.
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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