Hangovers, alcohol and the gut

The effects of alcohol on your gut

Excessive consumption of alcohol takes its toll on the body. Anyone who has overdone it on a night out can attest to waking up with a pounding head, dizziness and the inevitable upset stomach. It usually takes a day or two before you feel normal again and during that time you’ll certainly wish you’d done things differently. Old wives’ tales for curing and avoiding hangovers abound, but it turns out, the key may very well lie in your gut.

Alcohol consumption in numbers

The NHS recommends drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol per week and that should be spread over 3 or more days1. Some studies suggest we shouldn’t be drinking alcohol at all!2 Despite this, approximately 2 billion people worldwide drink alcohol on a daily basis3. That is potentially an awful lot of hangovers and upset tummies!

Why do we get an upset stomach after drinking alcohol?

Although some alcoholic drinks are highly calorific, they contain ‘empty’ calories meaning that they do not contain essential nutrients4. It is also important to remember that alcohol consumption can affect our gut bacteria in a negative way. Regardless of the many factors that determine how alcohol affects us including food consumption, gender, medications etc. the gut has its own unique way of dealing with these beverages.

After the consumption of alcohol, it takes between 30 minutes to 2 hours to be fully absorbed into the bloodstream; 20% being absorbed in the stomach and 80% through the small intestine5. Once alcohol enters your body it begins to irritate the digestive system and even one glass of an alcoholic drink makes your stomach produce more acid than usual, leading to gastritis6.

Alcohol can also cause an imbalance of gut bacteria, with an overgrowth of potentially harmful bacteria and a reduction in beneficial bacteria. This may cause inflammation of the gut and the tight junctions in the intestine become leaky, allowing toxins to enter the blood stream and exacerbating the effects.

The gut bacteria play an important role in the immune system, help with the absorption of critical nutrients and help to maintain gut barrier function. When the balance of gut bacteria is disrupted, the resultant imbalance can give rise to health problems. Dr Paul Vandewalle, Principal Scientific Consultant at Clasado says: “Scientific studies have reported that those who consume excessive alcohol are more likely to suffer from leaky gut syndrome and gut inflammation, which may cause diarrhoea and other gastrointestinal symptoms.7

How can I protect my gut when drinking?

Inevitably, alcohol consumption negatively affects your gut, brain and overall health and wellbeing, so it would be best to stick to the recommended amount of alcohol per week. However, it is important that the balance between good and bad bacteria remains healthy for you to best be prepared to deal with the intake of alcohol. Ensuring that you eat before drinking and by maintaining a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria in your gut, hangovers can become easier to deal with, helping your body to recover faster.

“Maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria is one way of helping to prevent the inflammation that is caused by alcohol. There are different ways to ensure a healthy balance of gut bacteria, including a nutritious diet with plenty of fibre and taking supplements like prebiotics to encourage the growth of healthy gut bacteria”, says Dr Vandewalle.

Are some alcoholic drinks better than others for the gut?

No matter what alcoholic drink you opt for, the same active ingredient enters your bloodstream once consumed – ethanol, which is the substance that makes you drunk.8 When it comes to hangovers, congeners are claimed to be responsible for some drinks giving you worse hangover than others. Congeners are minor compounds that are a by-product of distilling and fermentation9. A few experimental studies showed that drinks containing higher level of congeners, like whisky, result in worse hangover ratings than those with low or no congeners like vodka. However, ethanol is still the main ingredient responsible for feeling drunk and hungover.

That aside, many people still want to enjoy an alcoholic tipple, from time to time, especially when getting together with friends and family.  So how do our  Christmas favourites fair when it comes to gut friendliness?

Favourite Xmas TippleDr Vandewalle's Opinion
&nbspWine (ABV 11.6%) &nbsp“There are opinions that red wine in moderation can be gut- friendly because it contains polyphenols that support the beneficial bacteria”
&nbspBeer (ABV 4.5%) &nbsp“Polyphenols and B vitamins in beer may stimulate the growth of good bacteria and help digestion”
 Champagne (ABV 11.5%)  “Champagne wines have been shown to contain relatively high amounts of phenolic acids that may exert a positive effect on the gut bacteria. They also contain the gassy CO2 bubbles which makes you feel more bloated”
 Gin (ABV 37.5%)  “Gin is made from juniper berries that are classified as a superfood, with many alleged health benefits. However, it may not have any benefits for gut bacteria.”
 Vodka (ABV 40%)  “Drinks with high concentrations of alcohol, like vodka, can destroy bacteria in the gut due to their disinfectant qualities.”
 Tequila (ABV 40%)  "The agavins (natural sugars from the agave plant) in tequila may not be associated with an positive effects on the gut bacteria.”
 Whisky (ABV 40%)  "“The potential negative effects of whisky on the gut may be mitigated by the polyphenols when compared to pure alcohol. However, whiskey has a high amount of hangover- causing congeners”
Please drink responsibly ‘’. The good effects are all based on a moderate intake of alcohol.


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*Hangover rating according to a poll of 1000 UK residents conducted by in October 2018. Respondents were asked to rank 7 alcoholic drinks according to their propensity to cause a hangover.

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