Alcohol is a very controversial subject that has plenty of scientific studies that could be used to argue both sides until you’re blue in the face. I’m going to try to present as much of an unbiased look into the effects of alcohol on the digestive tract as possible (I am was a beer lover after all).
Overall Health Effects
Before we can properly discuss how alcohol impacts the digestive system we need to discuss the amount of alcohol ingested. The amount and how often you consume alcohol are by far the two biggest factors of alcohol’s effects on the human body. A quick Google search will show you that chronic alcohol abuse will result in a substantial increase in your chances of getting cirrhosis of the liver, cancer of the liver or digestive tract, diabetes, GERD, alcoholic hepatitis and the list goes on and on. Therefore, I will not be examining the problems associated with acute alcohol usage as I am going to assume anyone who is following SCD is well aware that alcohol abuse is not going to help them heal any of their digestive problems.
That being said; for this post we are going to be discussing moderate alcohol consumption. What is moderate consumption? Great question… most studies seem to define it as 1 drink for women and 2-3 drinks for men per day. A drink is then defined as roughly 4-5 ounces of wine, 12oz of beer, or 1 oz of 80 proof (40% alcohol) liquor.
Alcohol Has Benefits?
So, why drink any alcohol? There are more and more studies showing up every day hailing alcohol and its effects on your health. This summary of a study published in the British Medical Journal shows that 2 drinks a day cuts your risk of a heart attack by 25%! This study from the South African Medical Journal makes a very compelling statement, “Epidemiological evidence suggests that moderate consumption (1-3 drinks) of alcoholic beverages, particularly red wine, is associated with an overall improvement in health, especially cardiovascular health.” It is also known that alcohol thins the blood which can help anyone at risk of atherosclerosis. So, at this point we know that chronic or acute usage of alcohol is very detrimental to our health and that there is some evidence that moderate consumption might actually be beneficial.
What Does Elaine Say?
Well, in all instances in which she does permit alcohol she always attaches the word “occasionally” with it. I interpret that to mean in moderation, as I’m sure she was well aware of what excessive drinking does to the body. According to Breaking the Vicious Cycle and Pecanbread.com the following lists are what is and is not permissible on the SCD Diet
LEGAL: Dry Wine, Gin, Rye, Scotch, Bourbon and Vodka
ILLEGAL: Beer, Sweet Wines, Sherry, Cordials, Liqueurs and Brandy
Now you might be thinking “Great, I’m home free as long as I stick to the legal list!” Well, not so fast… I feel inclined to share a few details with you before you make your final decision the next time you reach for a bottle.
Alcohol Getting Down in the GI Tract
When you drink alcohol, about 20% of the quantity is immediately absorbed through the stomach walls. The remaining alcohol in the stomach starts to break down with the help of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. The stomach contains limited amounts of alcohol dehydrogenase allowing most of the remaining alcohols to pass through where it is quickly absorbed by the upper portion of the small intestine. The digestive tract blood vessels transport the alcohol to the liver, as liver cells are the only body cells that can produce enough of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase to breakdown the alcohol quickly. Overall, alcohol is given a first class pass through the digestive system and directly to the liver. Doesn’t seem like it impacts the digestive tract too bad, right? Let’s look a little closer.
The following points are distilled (pun intended) from my research on how even the smallest amount of alcohol affects the digestion process. See the end of this post for my sources.
- Alcohol damages mucosa cells (special digestive cells lining your GI tract), which leads to less saliva production in the mouth, inflammation of the esophagus, and inflammation of the stomach
- Alcohol impairs digestive motility (muscle control and contraction), which slows the movement of food through the esophagus and intestines and usually leads to diarrhea
- Low alcohol content drinks (beer, wine) raise levels of stomach acid which can cause acid reflux and gastritis.
- High alcohol content drinks (distilled) don’t raise stomach acid levels but they are more inflammatory to the mucosa cells leading to higher amounts of inflammation
- Lastly, alcohol impairs the stomach acid solution by precipitating (separating) pepsin the main enzyme responsible for protein digestion, which limits the digestion process as pepsin is activated by hydrochloric acid (main component of stomach acid)
Summing It All Up
So, what are we supposed to do, abstain completely from alcohol? My answer would be “YES” if you haven’t ever been a drinker. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that shows alcohol is not helping to heal our digestive tract, therefore adding additional damage to our system by claiming scientific studies might show some possible health benefits is asinine in my opinion.
But, what if you enjoy alcohol in moderation? I think that if you stick to the list of approved types of alcohol and follow Elaine’s advice of “occasionally” (moderation) the benefit of being able to enjoy a night out with some friends or a relaxing drink after a long day during this diet is probably psychologically worth it. However, please be aware that any amount of alcohol directly affects the speed and quality of digestion, therefore it not advisable to drink before or during a meal. The breakdown of food that is consumed with or after alcohol is likely going to be incomplete and the food will stay in the intestinal tract longer, ferment and contribute to the viscous cycle we are fighting.
What is your opinion on the use of alcohol while on SCD? Do you partake in a drink here or there? I would love to hear your opinions.