How can alcohol affect our gut?
With the current uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, more people may be turning to alcohol to cope. While a glass of red wine may seem calming in the moment, it’s important to note that alcohol can irritate your gut and exacerbate IBS symptoms.
Firstly, what is alcohol?
Alcohol is often the forgotten macronutrient, as when compared to the other three (protein, fats, and carbohydrates) it provides very little nutritional value. Produced by certain carb-rich foods, such as grapes (used to make wine), grains or potatoes (used to make beer and vodka), alcohol contributes 7 calories per gram.
How is alcohol digested?
Even though alcohol passes through the digestive system, it is not digested in the same manner as food and other beverages. After making its way to the small intestine via the stomach, alcohol is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, where it travels to the rest of the body. This process may be slowed if there is food in the stomach. The final stage of the digestion process involves removing the alcohol through the liver.
How does alcohol affect our gut?
When it comes to IBS and alcohol, there are two main triggers – the actual alcohol itself or the presence of any FODMAPs, which may be added as a mixer or naturally occurring in the type of alcohol (this will be discussed in the next section).
Alcohol acts as a gut irritant and stimulant which can be problematic for those with diarrhea prominent IBS. It reduces intestinal absorption meaning we won’t absorb nutrients as well as we normally would, and alters intestinal motility – the speed in which food moves through the gut, increasing the likelihood of diarrhea. On top of that, it also increases acid secretion and slows down stomach emptying which often makes us feel quite nauseous. I’m sure we’ve all been there before…
Does the type of alcohol matter?
Many alcoholic drinks contain FODMAPs which may also trigger symptoms for some people. Thankfully the team over at Monash University have tested most alcoholic beverages. They found that most spirits are low FODMAP (apart from rum), and when it comes to beer and wine, it depends on the type and quantity. For the exact portions, we recommend checking the Monash FODMAP app.
It’s important to note that even if you stick to low FODMAP alcohol, most spirits are often mixed with carbonated drinks that may contain FODMAPs or caffeine, both of which can cause digestive issues. Additionally, you may be sensitive to natural food chemicals like amines or salicylates, which are found in most beer and wine.
For more information and individualised advice regarding your IBS and triggers, we recommend seeing an Accredited Practicing Dietitian.
Tips to avoid alcohol induced IBS:
1. Moderation is Key
Consider reducing your intake as much as possible – in Australia, guidelines recommend no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks per day.
2. Try to Eat Before Drinking
The presence of food helps to slow the absorption of alcohol and protect your gut lining from any irritation.
3. Stay Hydrated
Alternate your alcoholic beverages with water – this will help dilute the alcohol and slow the rate at which you are drinking, giving your digestive system more time to process the alcohol, causing less irritation and ultimately reducing IBS symptoms.
4. Be Mindful of Mixers
Obviously try to stay FODMAP friendly but remember that even low FODMAP carbonated drinks add gas into the gut, which may cause some pain or bloating.
5. Keep a Food and Symptom Diary
As always, keep a diary – this will be great to monitor and identify what triggers your IBS symptoms.