The Ulcer-Alcohol Link

There is no direct causal link between alcohol consumption and the formation of ulcers in your stomach. But before you get too happy, let us clarify that alcohol isn’t necessarily great for people with ulcers either. Excessive alcohol consumption can place your gastrointestinal system under major strain and cause your stomach lining to gradually erode.

An eroded and weak stomach lining in turn becomes inflamed, a condition called gastritis which if left untreated or if it persists over some time can create an ideal environment for the development of peptic ulcers due to excessive acid production. The same case holds for ulcers that develop in other parts of the small intestine as well.

The ulcer-alcohol link is tenuous at best, but it is still better to be safe than sorry. This article lays down some alcohol consumption guidelines that can minimize your propensity to develop an ulcer or the possibility of exacerbating existing ones.

Why Limit Alcohol If It Doesn’t Cause Ulcers?

The question that now arises is if alcohol isn’t directly responsible for casing ulcers, why should you stop?

You don’t need to necessarily stop alcohol consumption if you don’t have ulcers. You just need to moderate your drinking. You don’t need to deny yourself a nightcap or an occasional drink to ward or nerves or relax.

Certain studies have pointed to the potentially beneficial impact of moderate alcohol consumption in limiting the growth of the H. Pylori bacterium in the gastrointestinal system responsible for peptic ulcer.

There are guidelines on healthy quantities for men and women respectively on a daily basis. Essentially, restricting your intake to about half an ounce of pure alcohol in whatever form that may take is the rule to live by.

An ounce of alcohol roughly translates into 30 ml or so. This means that you can have about 12 ounces of beer (available in most can/bottle sizes, give or take a few milliliters), 240 ml of malt liquor, 150 ounces of wine, and 44 ml of vodka/rum/gin/whisky.

All these measures translate into one drink- men can have two drinks a day, whereas women should restrict themselves to one a day.

The problem arises when you drink heavily above the recommended quantities and at such frequency that it affects your stomach lining. Excessive drinking won't directly cause an ulcer but it can aggravate the stomach and exacerbate other factors leading to ulcers.

If you are unsure about what constitutes excessive drinking here’s the lowdown.

If you have a drink or two every day it’s all right. Any more than 2 drinks i.e., downing more than 4-5 drinks on a single day (3 drinks in comparison for women) is excessive or binge drinking. If you binge-drink more than 5 times a month, you should seek professional help for heavy drinking.

Should I Limit Alcohol If I Already Have an Ulcer?

You should 100% limit alcohol intake as far as possible, and ideally, stop it altogether if you have an ulcer. Alcohol can exacerbate the ulcer, by generating more acid content and killing helpful bacteria, aggravating various symptoms and causing potentially dangerous complications.

Even moderate drinking can irritate the ulcer and cause a worsening of symptoms. This is especially true of drinks with lower alcohol content and more fermentation like beer, and wines which bring in more acid into the stomach and irritate the stomach lining while also heightening pain.

Beer for example releases gastrin, a chemical primarily from the fermentation process which stimulates acid production. In fact, lighter drinks like these may be more harmful than hard liquor due to the ill effects of fermentation.

Uncontrolled consumption can lead to heightened nausea, vomiting, changes in appetite, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), and improper absorption of nutrients.

These problems in turn can worsen the ulcer by preventing or delaying its timely healing, causing bleeding and perforation of the ulcer, malabsorption of food and blockage of the digestive tract, and peritonitis in which the lining covering the abdominal organs becomes red, raw, and inflamed and potentially infected.

If you continue to consume copious amounts of alcohol despite having an ulcer you may experience the following symptoms.

  • Weakness and fatigue

  • Sharp pains in the abdomen

  • Vomiting blood or blood in the stool

  • Stool that looks like coffee grounds

  • Severe weight loss

  • Breathing difficulties

  • Heartburn/Acid Reflex

  • Stiff abdomen

  • Fainting/ Loss of consciousness

  • Confusion

Some of these symptoms will require treatment of the ulcer through more invasive procedures like surgery, while others can be life-threatening like peritonitis which needs emergency treatment/critical care.

Conclusion – Preventive and Remedial Care

If you don't have an ulcer but are unable to regulate your alcohol intake, you should see a professional for either de-addiction or attend alcohol rehabilitation centers/ sessions to cut down on your intake.

If you aren’t diagnosed with any problem, but still want to reduce the number of drinks you have as you are sensing a dependency or an inclination towards using alcohol as a stress-relief mechanism frequently, you can follow a few key steps −

  • Keep a check on the amount of alcohol you have on a weekly/daily basis by maintaining a diary of what you had, the amounts, and when. This will help you identify how serious the issue is, and trace your patterns, preferences, and problems areas like stressful circumstances that tend to escalate your drinking habits.

  • To be able to maintain a diary you need to know quantities, as mentioned in the section above. Read and memorize measurements so have a detailed report.

  • Refrain from going to places of being with people who encourage your drinking habits. You will need to learn how to say no, at least on a few occasions, and then ramp up the abstinence.

  • Fix a goal date by which you will stop drinking and taper your drinks accordingly by day or week. Seek support from friends, family, and local AA groups to keep yourself on track and find hobbies of your choice to keep yourself occupied and active whenever you feel the urge to drink.

Updated on: 14-Apr-2023


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