Skip links

Alcohol & Leaky Gut – It’s Not A Love Story

Like me, I’m sure you enjoy the odd drink or two, but where do we draw the line between occasionally indulging and keeping our gut health in check?  In other words, how much drinking is too much for leaky gut?

Last Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Alcohol leaky gut

In this guide, you’ll discover…

Does alcohol contribute to leaky gut? >

Why I abstained from alcohol for 3 months in order to heal my leaky gut >

3 main reasons I ditched alcohol to repair my gut >

It’s not just the alcohol that causes leaky gut…these 3 things may be even more important! >

How to reduce alcohol cravings (the easy way) >

Alcohol, leaky gut and the long term >

4 ways to make alcohol okay for gut health >

Does alcohol contribute to leaky gut?

Well, let’s kick things off by first realizing that, YES, alcohol does contribute to leaky gut1.

Now I know this is not the ideal answer you or I want to hear.  But the good news is I’m not about to go full Prohibition Era on you and say you need to give it up for good.

In fact, even I myself do NOT abstain from alcohol on any permanent basis.

You see, I think some of the most enjoyable times are those spent with friends and family. From sharing a nice meal together in the city to long afternoon cookouts in the backyard, these are the times I love.

And during these times we often like to share a bottle of wine or try some new beers together, and it’s always fun. Stories flow, laughs are had and it makes for great memories. I don’t want to say goodbye to that.

But if you are currently suffering from a leaky gut (like I previously did), I have some bad news for you…

…unfortunately for you, an unhealthy gut is NO place for alcohol, and so temporarily saying goodbye  might be the best idea. Let me explain…

Why I abstained from alcohol for 3 months in order to heal my leaky gut

Stomach pains. Daily heartburn. Bad asthma.

Hello leaky gut my good friend!

When I enjoyed this daily triumvirate of symptoms for a month straight, I decided it was time to really tackle leaky gut head on. That meant I had to get hardcore.

Eating my paleo-low FODMAP style diet was no longer good enough. It was time to take out all the other things that were ever so slightly contributing to leaky gut. And alcohol was one of them.

You see, to fully heal your leaky gut you have to go through a sustained period of time where you literally abstain from ALL contributing factors, not just some.

There are no half measures it turns out. And even if alcohol is rarely consumed, it can wreak digestive havoc.

So for 3 months I ditched all drinks and San Pellegrino became my new BFF. And wow, did it work!

Obviously, alcohol abstinence alone did not heal my leaky gut, but it was definitely one of the final missing pieces.

That’s why I implore you to do the same – ditch the drinks for a bit and your gut will show you the love!

3 main reasons I ditched alcohol to repair my gut

1) Alcohol stops you from digesting your food properly

You see, here’s one of the nasty things about alcohol: it can actually damage the pancreas, which can then decrease the secretion of digestive enzymes2. Which is a big problem!

As a refresher, enzymes are what breakdown the food/nutrients we eat and turn them into the kinda stuff our body can use to repair itself and be healthy3. And being able to digest your food well is one of the cornerstones of healing your leaky gut.

Most importantly, if you continue drinking alcohol whilst suffering from leaky gut, you will end up with a vicious cycle of indigestion and poor nutrient absorption. E.g. Nutrients like folate don’t get absorbed4, which can lead to problems with glucose metabolism and imbalances in gut bacteria.

And in turn, these issues can cause further intestinal damage and worsen leaky gut and it’s symptoms5.

For example, what we see in chronic alcoholics is that their digestive system literally stops working as their pancreas is no longer able to secrete even a moderate amount of digestive enzymes – as well as other factors for protecting health6.

2) Alcohol reduces the production of prostaglandins7

I know what you’re thinking: “Whoa, whoa, slow down egg head!”.

So let me first explain that prostaglandins are simply a group of compounds with hormone-like effects in our bodies. And they’re pretty important for us leaky gut sufferers.

That’s because they can help moderate inflammation in our bodies8, and given that chronic inflammation is one of THE leading causes of leaky gut, prostalandins are kind of like a superhero for our bodies.

This means that drinking alcohol is basically like asking Superman (prostaglandins) to save you, whilst you throw kryptonite at him.

Not very smart.

That said, in a healthy body, prostaglandin production can survive a temporary hit, e.g. from a weekend of moderate drinking with friends. What it cannot survive though is frequent binge drinking or daily/habitual drinking.

So whilst casual drinking may be okay, alcohol abuse definitely is not.

And whilst you have leaky gut, even casual drinking is out, because you need your superhero (prostaglandin) in tip top condition so it can keep inflammation in check.

3) Alcohol makes your gut’s security guards drunk

Let me explain. So, basically your gut lining is permeable, which means things can go through it. And it has tight junctions, which are like the security guards at a night club. They help decide what gets through your gut and into your bloodstream, and what doesn’t.

Now usually these guys are reliable. They’ll let in people on the guest list, like nutrients. And they’ll keep out the uninvited fellas, like undigested food particles and toxins.

Unfortunately alcohol inhibits their decision making, just like it does yours (2am kebab anyone?).

Said differently, alcohol has an adverse impact on tight junction function9. And what that means, is now these security guards start letting uninvited fellas like toxins into your bloodstream, which of course leads to inflammation.

Hello leaky gut!

It’s not just the alcohol that causes leaky gut…these 3 things may be even more important!

Sure, alcohol is bad for your gut. But if all that talk of diminished enzyme, prostaglandin and tight junction function didn’t scare the bejeezus out of you, this surely will.

You see, perhaps worse than alcohol is the knock-on effects it produces, which when taken together can absolutely annihilate your gut health.

In fact, I usually find these knock-on effects and behaviors to be the REAL culprit of most peoples leaky gut symptoms.

Whether you drink socially or more frequently, you probably have experienced them…

Knock-on effect #1 – Use of NSAIDs, like aspirin or ibuprofen due to a hangover

Sunday mornings are Advil’s best friend. Throughout the nation people pop these little nuggets of relief almost weekly, if not more. Unfortunately, NSAIDs eat away at your gut lining, just like alcohol does10, and have even been shown to produce lesions in the intestinal lining – ay carumba!

NSAIDs also reduce prostaglandin production, further contributing to already low levels of prostaglandin caused by alcohol consumption11.

So when you combine them back to back with a night out drinking, you go from throwing little chunks of kryptonite at prostaglandin, your superhero, to blasting him with bunker-busting payloads of kryptonite!

In addition, NSAIDs will irritate the intestinal lining and decrease mucosal levels12. To illustrate the importance of mucosal levels, think of the layer of mucus protecting your intestinal lining like a prophylactic13. i.e. mucus protects your gut from exposure to food particles, bad bacteria and any other irritants passing through, the saw way as a prophylactic protects against STIs. Value it accordingly!

Side note: If you are taking NSAIDs per a doctor’s prescription or as part of a wider pain management program – and not just for hangovers – please consult your doctor before making any changes to your current medical routine.

Knock-on effect #2 – Interrupted or reduced sleep

Although alcohol does a great job of sending us to sleep, it sucks when it comes to keeping us asleep.

Worse yet, it effects the quality of your sleep – in particular it reduces your body’s ability to enter deep sleep (the most rejuvenating stage of sleep). That’s why an 8 hour sleep on a Sunday will not be equal to that on any other normal night.

Plus alcohol use often keeps us up late, e.g. night out on the town, which further impacts sleep. If you’ve ever been to a business dinner on a Thursday that wrapped up past midnight and then had to wake up at 6am Friday you’ll know what I mean.

You’re probably then wondering, how does poor sleep exacerbate leaky gut?

Firstly, less sleep means less time for the body to repair itself. And if you have leaky gut your body is literally fighting to recover every day against the chronic inflammation.

Secondly, disrupted circadian rhythms also make us more susceptible to liver damage and intestinal permeability in general, aka leaky gut, while harmful bacteria enter the bloodstream more easily during sleep deprivation, thereby further throwing off our bacterial balance and worsening gut health14.

Knock-on effect #3 – Stress

Alcohol stresses the body from both a physiological and psychological perspective15. Although it is less pronounced in casual drinkers, it can be quite severe in habitual or binge drinkers.

Either way, this added stress further reduces the body’s ability to digest food and absorb nutrients, meaning leaky gut gets worse, and so do its accompanying symptoms.

How to reduce alcohol cravings (the easy way)

There are many ways to make cutting down alcohol – or completely quitting it – easy. But my 3 absolute favorites:

1) Associate pain with drinking & pleasure with abstaining

This is a simple exercise of listing out all the pain you get from alcohol (eg heartburn after drinking wine, eg interrupted sleep, eg diarrhea the next day) and all the pleasure you get from not drinking it (eg beautiful bowel movements, lose weight, no hangovers etc).

By doing this exercise and putting it in writing, you’re able to change the way your subconscious looks at alcohol, and thus reduce your cravings from the bottom-up.

i.e. instead of relying on willpower of the conscious mind, you let the much bigger and more powerful subconscious take care of it.

2) Stock up on delicious substitute drinks

To help make alcohol easy to forget about, you should come up with a range of drinks you can enjoy – including some that would fit under the ‘naughty but better’ category, like Coke No Sugar. I have a full list of amazing leaky gut friendly drinks here.

One of my absolute favorites is kombucha. (And yes, I know it has trace amounts of alcohol, but this amount is nowhere near a concerning level).

3) Try L-Glutamine

L-Glutamine is an amino acid, which is a type of building block / fuel for our cells. Remarkably this amino acid has a fantastic ability to reduce alcohol cravings as shown in this study (Int J Pharm Bio Sci Volume 7 Issue 4, 2016).

Oh, and did I mention it is one of the best compounds out there for repairing leaky gut? Talk about a win-win.

L-Glutamine can be found in foods like chicken, eggs, dairy and even legumes.

But to get a high enough dose to support reduction of alcohol cravings – and improve leaky gut simultaneously – it is wise to look for a pure form of L-Glutamine – which is where a high quality L-Glutamine supplement can come in super handy.

Alcohol, leaky gut and the long term – or why I gave up for 3 months, but now drink occasionally

After reading this you’re probably thinking alcohol is out. And well, if you have leaky gut it definitely is..but only temporarily.

You see, once I had spent 90 days on the strictest of strict protocols – clean diet, quality supplements, no alcohol etc – my gut was in great shape.

It could handle a few glasses of red wine here and there.

But to keep it in great shape and avoid slipping back to leaky gut territory – something I see so many people do – I have 4 tricks up my sleeve.

4 ways to reduce the impact of alcohol on our gut health

1) No beer

I absolutely love beer. Belgian beers like Duvel are packed with flavors you just can’t find in any other drink. But beer is also the last thing those of us susceptible to leaky gut should be drinking, especially those of us with gluten sensitivity.

The alcohol content is of course bad. But the gluten, and other grains in general, found in beers – not to mention the candida-causing yeast16 – is even worse.

So trick #1 is simple: say adios to beer!

2) Take digestive enzymes when you eat

As we looked at above, one of the major problems with alcohol is it inhibits your production of enzymes, which are needed to turn food into nutrients that your intestine can use to repair – and to also prevent large food particle from further irritating it.

Taking a powerful digestive enzyme supplement with your meals can thus work wonders.

In other words, if you know you’re going to be depleting something in your body, the answer is simple: replace it!

So trick #2 is to pick up an enzyme supplement like this one

3) Probiotics & prebiotics

I’m talking about those good bacteria that your gut just loves (probiotics) and the foods that help them to grow and flourish (prebiotics). I consume these like the cookie monster.

Every day I try to eat food that contains these, eg a serving of sauerkraut for probiotics and a green banana for prebiotics. But I also take this world class probiotic supplement and this prebiotic powder – both of which my research team and I designed after months of research and testing.

Although I like to get my nutrients in food form, I get sick of eating things like sauerkraut and unripe bananas pretty quickly. And that’s why I like to use supplements.

So why do I love probiotics and prebiotics with respect to alcohol?

Well, it turns out that consuming them may give your gut a protective barrier against alcohol17. In a study on rats, it showed this combination as distilling a protective effect from the damages of alcohol, including on the liver18. You are by no means invincible, but it is the kind of insurance I like.

More importantly, prebiotics will feed the good bacteria of your gut and make it more ready for intestinal warfare.

I know that whenever I travel for a few days on holiday, dosing with probiotic-prebiotic supplements seems to settle things, even if I have a few glasses of wine. Things feel good!

So trick #3: get on the probiotic & prebiotic bandwagon!

4) Zinc

This little guy can have a great impact on the mucosal levels of our guts – i.e. the protective layer of mucus lining our intestines.

In fact, research has shown that zinc increases mucus production in the gut19. More mucus, means more protection from leaky gut and protection from toxic substances.

And that’s really important because alcohol and NSAIDs hammer away at this layer every time we take them. So what I do is every day I take a multi with zinc in it. That’s trick #4 and it gets the job done!

So as you can see alcohol has a very complex relationship with the gut

It is definitely NOT a friend to those of you with leaky gut. But once you heal your leaky gut (here’s how I did it) it’s kind of like an acquaintance from work…

…you can invite them to some of your get togethers, but definitely not all of them. Moderation is the name of this game!

(Oh and never invite that weird guy that sits in the corner talking to himself, he’s bad news. I think they call him Senor Beer…he’s not for us).

Happy drinking to you and your glorious gut!

References

  1. Cho YE, Song BJ. Pomegranate prevents binge alcohol-induced gut leakiness and hepatic inflammation by suppressing oxidative and nitrative stress. Redox biology. 2018 Sep 1;18:266-78.

  2. Pezzilli R. Alcohol abuse and pancreatic diseases: an overview. Recent patents on inflammation & allergy drug discovery. 2015 Aug 1;9(2):102-6.

  3. Goodman BE. Insights into digestion and absorption of major nutrients in humans. Advances in physiology education. 2010 Jun;34(2):44-53

  4. Sebastiani G, Borrás-Novell C, Alsina Casanova M, Pascual Tutusaus M, Ferrero Martínez S, Gómez Roig MD, García-Algar O. The effects of alcohol and drugs of abuse on maternal nutritional profile during pregnancy. Nutrients. 2018 Aug;10(8):1008.

  5. Park S, Kang S, Kim DS. Folate and vitamin B-12 deficiencies additively impaired memory function and disturbed the gut microbiota in amyloid-β infused rats. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research. 2019 Dec 16.
  6. Na HK, Lee JY. Molecular basis of alcohol-related gastric and colon cancer. International journal of molecular sciences. 2017 Jun;18(6):1116.

  7. Bode C, Maute G, Bode JC. Prostaglandin E2 and prostaglandin F2 alpha biosynthesis in human gastric mucosa: effect of chronic alcohol misuse. Gut. 1996 Sep 1;39(3):348-52.
  8. Ricciotti E, FitzGerald GA. Prostaglandins and inflammation. Arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, and vascular biology. 2011 May;31(5):986-1000.

  9. Shukla PK, Meena AS, Manda B, Gomes-Solecki M, Dietrich P, Dragatsis I, Rao R. Lactobacillus plantarum prevents and mitigates alcohol-induced disruption of colonic epithelial tight junctions, endotoxemia, and liver damage by an EGF receptor–dependent mechanism. The FASEB Journal. 2018 Nov;32(11):6274-92.

  10. Camilleri M. Leaky gut: mechanisms, measurement and clinical implications in humans. Gut. 2019 Aug 1;68(8):1516-26.

  11. Alberts DS, Hixson L, Ahnen D, Bogert C, Einspahr J, Paranka N, Brendel K, Gross PH, Pamukcu R, Burt RW. Do NSAIDs exert their colon cancer chemoprevention activities through the inhibition of mucosal prostaglandin synthetase?. Journal of Cellular Biochemistry. 1995;59(S22):18-23.

  12. Scarpignato C. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: how do they damage gastroduodenal mucosa?. Digestive Diseases. 1995;13(Suppl. 1):9-39.
  13. Cornick S, Tawiah A, Chadee K. Roles and regulation of the mucus barrier in the gut. Tissue barriers. 2015 Apr 3;3(1-2):e982426.
  14. Everson CA, Toth LA. Systemic bacterial invasion induced by sleep deprivation. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 2000 Apr 1;278(4):R905-16.
  15. Lowe PP, Gyongyosi B, Satishchandran A, Iracheta-Vellve A, Ambade A, Kodys K, Catalano D, Ward DV, Szabo G. Alcohol-related changes in the intestinal microbiome influence neutrophil infiltration, inflammation and steatosis in early alcoholic hepatitis in mice. PLoS One. 2017;12(3).
  16. Kennedy MJ. Regulation of Candida albicans populations in the gastrointestinal tract: mechanisms and significance in GI and systemic candidiasis. In Current topics in medical mycology 1989 (pp. 315-402). Springer, New York, NY.
  17. Zhou Z, Zhong W. Targeting the gut barrier for the treatment of alcoholic liver disease. Liver research. 2017 Dec 1;1(4):197-207.
  18. Keshavarzian A, Choudhary S, Holmes EW, Yong S, Banan A, Jakate S, Fields JZ. Preventing gut leakiness by oats supplementation ameliorates alcohol-induced liver damage in rats. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. 2001 Nov 1;299(2):442-8.
  19. Keshavarzian A, Choudhary S, Holmes EW, Yong S, Banan A, Jakate S, Fields JZ. Preventing gut leakiness by oats supplementation ameliorates alcohol-induced liver damage in rats. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. 2001 Nov 1;299(2):442-8.