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What Is the Relationship between Alcohol and the Digestive System?

Synthia L. Rose
Synthia L. Rose

A potentially destructive relationship exists between alcohol and the digestive system due to alcohol’s ability to erode salivary glands, damage metabolism and restrict the esophagus, doctors say. Not only does chronic alcohol use raise the risk of cancer for parts of the digestive system, but it can also interfere with daily functions. The digestive system, which consists of the entire gastrointestinal tract as well as accessory body parts that help metabolize food for absorption, is comprised of several delicate organs that are susceptible to lining and muscle damage, including the oral cavity, liver, gallbladder, and esophagus. Both the small and large intestines as well as pancreas can also suffer tears, polyps and lesions from alcohol use.

The oral cavity is the first area prone to the damage from the adverse link between alcohol and the digestive system. Salivary glands in the mouth, especially the parotid salivary gland, can become enlarged, hindering the production of saliva, which is needed to adequately taste and lubricate food during the chewing phase — the initial phase of digestion. Alcohol can also irritate the tongue and mucous membranes inside the mouth, causing them to swell. Some medical studies have also targeted alcohol as one of the causes of tooth loss and gum disease.

Alcohol can interfere with the normal, daily functions of the digestive system.
Alcohol can interfere with the normal, daily functions of the digestive system.

Faulty functioning of the esophagus is possible in the aftermath of combining alcohol and the digestive system over a long time period. Researchers say that exposure to alcohol reduces muscle power of the esophageal sphincter, weakening its contractions. When that happens, partially digested food and damaging gastric acid can flow backward from the stomach into the esophagus, producing symptoms like heartburn; studies show alcohol can dangerously elevate the stomach’s production of gastric acid and also reducing its muscle contractions. All these effects combined can slow the movement of food through the digestive system.

The opening of the esophagus can also become worn and narrower, restricting the ability to swallow as a result of regularly linking alcohol and the digestive system. Even if the physical tissue in the stomach, esophagus and intestines manage to escape harm from consistent alcohol exposure, alcohol can still kill good bacteria in the digestive tract, leaving the body more susceptible to malicious microorganisms and illnesses. Abraded linings can lead to bleeding or ulcers in both the esophagus and the stomach. If the bleeding occurs right at the juncture of the stomach and esophagus, it is known as Mallory-Weiss syndrome, a disease often found in alcoholics. Gastritis, which is inflammation of the stomach’s membrane, can also result from regular consumption of alcohol.

In cases of long-term, repetitive alcohol exposure, cancer may result from the negative relationship between alcohol and the digestive system. White-colored cancerous lesions can appear singularly or in multiples on the tongue, creating carcinoma of the tongue. Lesions or tumors can also appear inside the cheeks or on the internal walls of the esophagus, intestines and stomach. Doctors warn that the negative effects of combining alcohol and the digestive system are most likely in moderate to heavy drinkers although the mild effects of reduced saliva and increased gastric acid can occur in light drinkers.

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Discussion Comments


I remember reading that using mouthwash with alcohol increases the risk of mouth cancer. If that's true, then drinking alcohol will increase the risk of mouth cancer as well. I realize that the alcohol people drink and the alcohol in mouthwash are not the same. But both affect the tongue and oral tissues similarly. Alcohol basically damages oral tissues and makes it easier for cells to mutate and become tumorous.

I don't drink, so I don't have to worry about this. Alcohol has many dangers and its effects on the digestive reason is a strong reason to avoid it in my opinion.


@ZipLine-- I think one has to drink regularly and in large amounts to experience the side effects mentioned in the article. But it's also true that everyone is different. Some people are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. So even drinking less frequently can cause digestive issues.

You're already aware that you shouldn't drink so much that it makes you ill. Vomiting has its own negative side effects. The acid from the stomach irritates the esophagus and throat. And alcohol is already an acid producing substance. So it can cause acid reflux even when there is no nausea. That's one of the reasons people drink on a full stomach, to reduce the effects of the alcohol.


I don't drink frequently, so I'm hoping to avoid the negative side effects of alcohol on the digestive system. Although I don't drink often, when I do, I sometimes go overboard and get hung-over. Sometimes I have nausea and vomiting as a result. That in and of itself is bad. So I'm trying to drink within limits when I do.

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    • Alcohol can interfere with the normal, daily functions of the digestive system.
      By: maya2008
      Alcohol can interfere with the normal, daily functions of the digestive system.