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Home / Journal / How Alcohol Affects the Stomach

How Alcohol Affects the Stomach

Overdid it last night? Now your head feels like it’s going to blow and your stomach is all swollen and aching. Everyone experiences a hangover differently, but the symptoms most people experience are headaches, fatigue, nausea, and an upset stomach.

But how exactly does alcohol affect the stomach? And more importantly, what can you do to combat stomach issues arising from alcohol consumption?

Hangover symptoms depend on your chemistry, the amount of alcohol consumed, food in your system, and other factors. Each person is different and must learn their symptoms and strategies to get rid of a hangover.

You may have heard suggestions for how you can avoid a stomach upset and ease the ill-effects of alcohol on your stomach. These include not mixing drinks, eating, drinking plenty of water, not mixing painkillers with alcohol, and perhaps using a hangover pill that works to combat hangover symptoms. But do any of them truly help you avoid a stomach upset after drinking?

We list below the three most likely causes for your hangover stomach ache and tips to prevent it from happening again.

1. Acid levels in your stomach

Simply put, when you drink alcohol, it irritates your digestive system. The main reason people get stomach aches when they are hungover is that drinking alcohol raises the level of acid in your stomach, which can, in turn, cause gastritis (the inflammation of the stomach lining). This can trigger stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and, in heavy drinkers, even bleeding [1].

Ideally, eat both before and after drinking. Having food in your stomach slows the rate of alcohol absorption. And after drinking, more specifically, eat something dry like plain toast or saltine crackers to soak up the excess acid - these foods are easy on your stomach and should help with your recovery.

2. Microbes in your gut

Recent research has found that drinking too much can trigger your immune system to release chemicals called cytokines [2]. Increased levels of cytokines have been found to affect memory and concentration, as well as causing symptoms of nausea, headache, chills, and tiredness.

The release of cytokines is part of an inflammatory response - similar to when you have an infection. This response may be related to the microbes in your gut. Alcohol may increase the numbers of pro-inflammatory bacteria and stimulate the microbes to release toxins. Good bacteria in the gut may also be reduced, which can lead to ‘leaky gut’ - meaning that toxins can escape the stomach and enter the bloodstream.

3. Digestive enzymes

Alcohol is a toxic compound that cannot be stored in your body [3]. It must be oxidized by digestive enzymes in your liver so that it can provide energy from the sugars it contains and eventually pass from your body.

You may be surprised to learn that alcohol inhibits your gut’s ability to absorb crucial nutrients and proteins. Regularly drinking large quantities of alcohol reduces the number of digestive enzymes your pancreas can release into your digestive tract [4].

These enzymes are needed to oxidize the alcohol, to break it down into energy and components that eventually pass from your body. But the enzymes are also crucial to the proper digestion of food. Without them, you cannot take up the vitamins and minerals needed for different functions in your body.

Bottom line is having alcohol in your system causes your stomach to slow its rate of digestion, which may lead to nausea and even vomiting.

Other ingredients in your drink

Alcoholic drinks are complex and contain many substances you may not be aware of.

In addition to ethanol itself, alcoholic beverages can contain a mixture of grapes, yeast, wood and wheat derivatives, preservatives such as sodium metabisulphite, barley, and natural food chemicals, including salicylates.

Some wine and beer are subjected to a fining process to remove particles in the liquid. Your wine may have had particles removed using an egg-based agent. Seafood protein may be used to fine specific brands of beer.

These impurities often create unpleasant stomach aches because your body objects to the foreign chemicals in your system.

Get rid of your hangover stomach ache

The strength and length of your hangover go hand in hand with the amount of alcohol you consumed.

As mentioned earlier, alcohol consumption can cause inflammation of your stomach lining, leading to nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain. It also stimulates your stomach to produce excess acid, further contributing to nausea and vomiting.

Here are 4 tips to help treat your hangover stomach ache:

Eat some ginger

For centuries, people have taken ginger to reduce nausea and vomiting. Try nibbling crystallized ginger in the aftermath of a night of excessive drinking. Research shows that consuming a combination of ginger, tangerine pith, and brown sugar before drinking decreases the chance of nausea and vomiting [5].

Fill up the morning after

Eat breakfast. Electrolytes in food help replenish a dehydrated system and get calories back into your body. But go easy. While a greasy meal before drinking may help, a hangover needs foods that are easy to digest, like toast and cereal.

Take some antacid

If your stomach lining is upset from the effects of alcohol, an over-the-counter antacid might help settle the stomach.

Sleep it off

Sometimes your stomach woes are such that sleep is the best medicine. If your hangover and upset stomach are so uncomfortable that you can’t ease them by rehydrating and eating, hit the sheets for a few more hours of sleep.

While everyone is different, there are certainly commonalities in how alcohol affects the stomach. Now that you know what those commonalities are and the various steps you can take to combat them, you can feel more knowledgable and equipt to handle your next night out on the town. 

Sources:

[1] Alcohol and gastric acid secretion in humans

[2] Effect of alcohol hangover on cytokine production in healthy subjects

[3] Alcohol Allergy & Intolerance

[4] Relationships Between Nutrition, Alcohol Use, and Liver Disease

[5] Clinical effectiveness of KSS formula, a traditional folk remedy for alcohol hangover symptoms

 

 

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