No, alcohol does not cause ulcerative colitis (UC). Influential studies support this claim. Ulcerative Colitis is a chronic disease that is caused by an autoimmune dysfunction in the gastrointestinal tract. It develops independently of alcohol use or abuse.
What Is Ulcerative Colitis?
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases defines ulcerative colitis as, “… a chronic, or long lasting, disease that causes inflammation — irritation or swelling — and sores called ulcers on the inner lining of the large intestine.”
Ulcerative colitis is part of a family of diseases that exist within the umbrella term inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The other common IBD are Crohn’s disease and microscopic colitis.
Unfortunately, UC is a progressive, lifelong disease and is characterized by flares and remissions. During a flare, you would experience some or many of these symptoms:
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Diarrhea, sometimes with blood
- Inability to defecate despite urgency (constipation)
- Rectal bleeding, or passing a small amount of blood with stool
- Rectal pain
- Urgency to defecate
- Weight loss
Ulcerative colitis happens when your immune system incorrectly starts attacking the cells of your large intestine, or colon. These cells become inflamed (swollen, red and sensitive) and send chemical systems through your bloodstream to recruit immune system cells to help fight an infection that is not there. The immune cells incorrectly attack your large intestine cells. This effect causes symptoms during flares and damage over the long-term.
Alcohol Use and Colitis
Can alcohol cause colitis if you have already been diagnosed with it? Kind of. Alcohol can cause a UC flare, but since UC is lifelong, it never goes away completely, it just goes into remission. When you drink alcohol, it travels through your gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), which is the hollow organ that starts at your mouth, includes your stomach and intestines, and ends at your colon. Alcohol is an irritant and causes damage to the cells that line the inside of your GI tract, which is especially present in long-term alcohol use.
Effects of Drinking Alcohol With UC
The irritating effects of alcohol can mimic and worsen the symptoms of UC. In general, if you have any form of IBD, you should avoid all alcohol consumption. Since alcohol can mimic a lot of the symptoms of UC, it may cause more harm for those that consume alcohol on a regular and long-term basis.
Symptoms that alcohol can cause in the GI tract may include:
- Alters smooth muscle (intestinal) function
- Chronic diarrhea
- Damage to the lining of the intestines
- Decreased nutrient absorption
- Gastroparesis (food does not empty itself of food)
Notice how many of the above symptoms are the same as UC. Chronic use of alcohol can not only mask but can worsen the disease course of IBD.
Alcohol and Infection Risk
Alcohol has been shown to increase susceptibility to infection. The damage caused by alcohol in the GI makes your cells easier to colonize for bacteria. Unfortunately, GI infections are often very serious and sometimes fatal, and they usually require hospitalization.
Alcohol and Trigger Flares
Alcohol, caffeine, spicy food and other irritants are known to cause and prolong flares for people with UC. Sadly, UC is an incredibly difficult disease to live with, and alcohol consumption is a modifiable risk factor that can make the disease easier to live with.
Key Points: Alcohol and Colitis
A few key takeaways on alcohol and colitis include:
- Alcohol does not cause ulcerative colitis
- Alcohol can mask or worsen some of the symptoms of UC
- Avoid all alcohol with UC, as it can cause a flare of the disease
- Alcohol increases the risk of infection in your gastrointestinal tract
If you or someone you know needs treatment for alcohol abuse or addiction and they have ulcerative colitis (a type of inflammatory bowel disorder), The Recovery Village can help. Alcohol cessation can help control symptoms of UC and make it more manageable. To take the first step toward recovery, call The Recovery Village today.
Bergmann, MM, et al. “No Association of Alcohol Use and the Risk of Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s Disease: Data from a European Prospective Cohort Study (EPIC).” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2017. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019. Cannon, Abigail R, et al. “Alcohol Enhances Symptoms and Propensity for Infection in Inflammatory Bowel Disease Patients and a Murine Model of DSS-Induced Colitis.” Journal of Leukocyte Biology, 2018, Accessed 29 Apr. 2019. Bode, Christianne. “THE GI TRACT—AN OVERVIEW.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1980. Accessed April 2019. The Mayo Clinic. “Ulcerative Colitis – Symptoms and Causes.” 2018. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
Bergmann, MM, et al. “No Association of Alcohol Use and the Risk of Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s Disease: Data from a European Prospective Cohort Study (EPIC).” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2017. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
Cannon, Abigail R, et al. “Alcohol Enhances Symptoms and Propensity for Infection in Inflammatory Bowel Disease Patients and a Murine Model of DSS-Induced Colitis.” Journal of Leukocyte Biology, 2018, Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
Bode, Christianne. “THE GI TRACT—AN OVERVIEW.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1980. Accessed April 2019.
The Mayo Clinic. “Ulcerative Colitis – Symptoms and Causes.” 2018. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.