Those wrapping up a dry January may have noticed some significant changes to their overall health. When you stop drinking, your skin gets better, your sleep quality improves, and your energy levels increase. You may also notice improved digestion. The connection between alcohol and gut health is strong, says Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York-based internist and gastroenterologist.
“As much fun as alcohol may be, it does have its share of negative health effects, especially for the stomach and the esophagus,” says Dr. Sonpal. Large quantities of alcohol can lead to gastritis, or stomach inflammation, which causes heartburn, acid reflux, and sometimes long-term esophageal damage. “Once it leaves the stomach and it gets metabolized, it hits the small intestine.” There, says Dr. Sonpal, alcohol can damage the lining known as the villi, making it harder for you to absorb certain nutrients while at the same time killing off both good and bad bacteria. “The bad bacteria tend to grow more and so we ended up getting a mismatch of the microbiome as well.” Finally, alcohol causes dehydration, which can lead to constipation.
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Fortunately, all of these issues can be reversed by setting aside that glass of wine for a while.
“The stomach is a resilient organ that bounces back pretty quickly,” says Dr. Sonpal. “Gastritis should heal in a few weeks. If you have an ulcer, alcohol prevents the healing of ulcers, so it’ll help with that, too. In a few weeks to months, the villi of the small intestine should improve.” After a few weeks of supplementation with pre- and probiotics, your gut microbiome should also bounce back. Of course, if you believe you’re dealing with a serious gastrointestinal issue, consult your primary physician.
If you replaced your alcohol consumption with healthier alternatives, you’ll start to see the benefits in a few short weeks.
“When you stop drinking alcohol, we naturally start consuming other liquids, like water and fruit juices, and we end up eating more fiber,” says Dr. Sonpal. “What ends up happening is our colon gets healthier as well.”
But what happens if you take this reset and then resume alcohol consumption? If you want to maintain the benefits, Dr. Sonpal says you’ll need to figure out what moderation looks like to you.
“Each person has sort of their own barometer. I know that if I have a couple of drinks in a night, I’m okay. But more than two, my heartburn starts acting up,” he says. “It all depends on each individual patient and each individual person’s threshold. It also depends on what type of alcohol. For some people, hard alcohol tends to cause more difficulties than non-hard alcohol like wines and beers. It’s hard to say.” In any case, moderation, he says, is the name of the game.
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