Can your gut help with your hangover?

Christmas has arrived. A time for festivities and celebrations, this is the season where the occasional alcoholic drink is a tradition that is enjoyed across the nation. So, we decided it would be the perfect time to delve into the topic and ask, what does alcohol do to your gut?

The gut microbiome can be affected by a number of lifestyle factors such as age, diet and alcohol consumption (among others) [1]. Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol takes its toll on the body, leaving those who do so with a splitting headache, dizziness and the inevitable upset stomach the following day. Otherwise known as hangovers, there are countless old wives’ tales for curing and avoiding them. As it turns out, the key may lie in your gut.

Alcohol Consumption

The NHS recommends drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol per week and that should be spread over 3 or more days [2]. Some studies suggest we shouldn’t be drinking alcohol at all! [3] Despite this, approximately 2 billion people worldwide drink alcohol on a daily basis [4]. 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 nutrients [5]. It is also important to remember that alcohol consumption can affect our gut bacteria in a negative way.

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 intestine [6]. Once alcohol enters your body, it begins to irritate the digestive system and even one glass of an alcoholic drink can make your stomach produce more acid than usual, leading to gastritis [7].

Alcohol can also cause an imbalance of gut bacteria; heavy drinking can lead to increased colonisation of pathogenic bacteria and cause a reduction in beneficial bacteria. This may cause inflammation of the gut which allows toxins to enter the bloodstream.

Your gut bacteria play an important role in the immune system, helping with the absorption of critical nutrients and helping to maintain gut barrier function. When the balance of gut bacteria is disrupted, the resultant imbalance can give rise to health problems. Melanie Bulger, Clasado’s in-house Nutritionist 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” [8].

How can I protect my gut when consuming alcohol?

Inevitably, alcohol consumption negatively affects your gut, brain and overall health and wellbeing, so it’s best to stick to the recommended amount of alcohol per week. However, it’s important that the balance between bad and good bacteria remains healthy, otherwise, your body won’t be as well 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 may make hangovers easier to deal with and help your body recover faster.

For IBS sufferers, alcohol consumption can cause symptoms to flare up. There are some drinks that are better than others for those with sensitive stomachs. The IBS network has noted a number of alcoholic drinks which are better to go for including: beer, red or white wine, whisky, vodka and gin. [9] They also outlined alcoholic drinks to avoid which include: cider, rum, sherry, port and sweet dessert wine.

“Maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria is one way of helping to combat 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 Melanie Bulger.

Are some alcoholic drinks better than others for the gut?

No matter what alcoholic drink you opt for, the same active ingredient, ethanol, enters the bloodstream and this is the substance that makes you feel drunk [10]. When it comes to hangovers, congeners are claimed to be responsible for some drinks giving you a worse hangover than others. Congeners are minor compounds that are a by-product of distillation and fermentation [11]. 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. A good rule of thumb is: the darker the spirit, the more congeners it contains. However, ethanol is still the main ingredient responsible for feeling drunk and hungover.

To conclude, alcohol is a central part of the festivities at this time of the year. If you are planning on drinking but would rather avoid the hangover, then your gut may be key in helping. Some of the hangover symptoms may be reduced if you follow these guidelines in maintaining a healthy gut:

1. Make sure to eat prior to drinking alcohol.

2. Have a nutritious diet with lots of fibre, try adding prebiotic supplements like Bimuno to complement this.

3. Try to stray away from "High FODMAP" alcohols (cider, rum, sherry, port and sweet dessert wine)

Most importantly, the best way to avoid suffering from a hangover is drinking in moderation and sticking to the recommended daily units if you do decide to drink.


References

[1] The long-term stability of the human gut microbiota.

[2] Calculating-alcohol-units

[3] Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016

[4] Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004

[5] Bourbon and gut bacteria, how alcohol affects your microbiome

[6] How long does it take alcohol to be absorbed into the bloodstream?

[7] is alcohol harming your stomach?

[8] Alcohol-Dependence and the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis

[9] Can alcohol cause my IBS to flare up?

[10] Alcohol and Health: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

[11] The role of beverage congeners in hangover and other residual effects of alcohol intoxication


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