As the holiday season approaches, we are all increasingly partial to drinking a glass or two more than we usually would. But is this something we should be avoiding? Whilst many are aware of the links between excessive alcohol consumption and risk factors of liver damage, cardiovascular disease and even certain types of cancer, few are as knowledgeable about the gut’s role in all of this.
So, what really are the consequences of our alcohol consumption on the gut and precisely why does this matter?
Firstly, let’s establish the importance of gut health
When speaking of ‘gut health’, we are typically referring to the ‘microbiome’ of trillions of microorganisms supporting your daily bodily functions, which are situated within the gut. Research has shown that gut microbiomes play a crucial role across many aspects of health: not only does the balance of microorganisms within your gut affect digestion, but it also impacts your risk of developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and other autoimmune conditions .
But precisely how can alcohol affect your gut?
Increasingly, diets are being linked to gut microbiotic imbalance. This should not be too surprising, given that the gut plays a vital role in extracting essential nutrients from the food we eat whilst filtering out ingested harmful bacteria. So how does alcohol fit into all this? Considering the fact that throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we have become increasingly familiar with the use of alcohol in its pure form to kill bacteria external to the body. it should not be too surprising that alcohol (the same chemical compound) has the ability to affect the balance of bacteria in your gut; in turn disrupting your biome when consumed in large quantities.
The mechanism through which this occurs is explained by the fact that alcohol inhibits the production of digestive enzymes, rendering it more difficult for your cut to breakdown and absorb essential nutrients from food. This is why it is not uncommon to experience bloating and loose stools ‘the morning after’, as such symptoms result from excessive fermentation in the gut arising from partially digested food .
Perhaps even more worrying is alcohol’s ability to create vitamin and mineral deficiencies in humans, such as zinc and B6 deficiencies. This is because individuals who are more dependent on alcohol often do not receive adequate nutrition, whilst simultaneously suffering from a diminished ability of the gut to absorb essential nutrients. The combined effect means that secondary health issues arising from poor diet are much more common in cases of substance abuse. Linked to this, a 2017 study  used MRI scans to examine changes in participants’ grey and white matter over a 30-year period, establishing that even moderate alcohol consumption can be associated with adverse brain outcomes.
Furthermore, inflammation in your gut engendered by excessive alcohol consumption can potentially result in the increased permeability of your gut lining. This essentially means that larger, undigested food particles are more likely to be able to cross the gut lining and enter your bloodstream, consequently triggering immune responses and creating food intolerances .
Lastly, and possibly a more short-term effect that everyone can relate to, is the tendency of alcohol to increase your desire to consume processed foods. While the occasional trip to the kebab shop is unlikely to have significant health consequences, long-term increased consumption of highly processed foods can however harm your gut microbiome’s healthy balance.
So, should we drink alcohol at all?
You may be thinking “hang on… what about the studies linking red wine to more diverse gut microbiomes?” Indeed, certain research has pointed to polyphenols in red wine as creating conditions within the gut favouring more diverse gut micro-organisms. These polyphenols are also commonly found in ‘health’ foods such as berries, nuts and seeds. Yet, we should not be so quick to jump to conclusions as arguably causation was not adequately established in this study, leading the NHS to refute any definitive claims made . And given the previously discussed harmful effects that alcohol can have on the gut, it seems reasonable to argue that any potential nutrients that alcohol contains would be much more ideally obtained from wholefoods.
Notwithstanding, whilst the evidence overwhelmingly falls in favour of reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption entirely, for most of us this is either not feasible or simply not the kind of life we wish to lead. Hence government guidelines on alcohol consumption dictate that it ought to be capped at 14 units of alcohol a week, which is the equivalent to 1.5 bottles of wine or 5 pints of lager. This may come as a shock to someone who consumed almost that just last night, especially as this guideline is more likely to decrease overtime. The optimal solution for the gut – i.e. whether you are best-off simply following government guidelines or cutting consumption entirely – is dependent on the person in question and their individual gut microbiome.
Does the RYH plan allow for alcohol consumption?
The RYH plan focuses on rebalancing your gut microbiome through your diet and setting you on a sustainable path to healthier living. This is best done not by closely following government guidelines on alcohol consumption, but instead by cutting it out entirely initially; allowing your body the chance to achieve a total gut reset. So, whilst you may not perceive alcohol to have negative effects on the inner workings of your digestive system, the RYH plan follows scientific evidence pointing to its damaging effects on the gut biome and hence aims for the participant to cut it out entirely.
Without a stool test, it is difficult to determine what the current bacterial population is in your gut, as well as if you have any inflammatory markers. For this reason, the RYH plan simply treats everyone as equals and sets them on a path to maintaining a healthy gut via their diet, and this initially means cutting out alcohol. Beyond the plan, it is up to the individual to ‘trust their gut’ and determine their own optimal level of consumption, but we believe that one’s gut microbiome must be allowed to reset before making that decision.
Everybody is different: owing to varying amounts of helpful bacteria facilitating the metabolism of alcohol in the gut, we all tolerate alcohol in different ways. So, while inevitably more research is needed in the field of gut biomes, one thing is clear in that there is limited evidence pointing to any helpful effects of alcohol on the gut.
So, when you’re reaching for that extra glass of bubbly on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve, be mindful of how you may be angering those trillions of microorganisms sitting in your gastrointestinal tract…