A direct link between alcohol consumption and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) has yet to be established and the data is mixed.
Most medical professionals agree that alcohol is a risk factor for GERD and advise against drinking too much alcohol. In general, this is good advice, if only because alcohol can cause extensive damage to the body. So, how does alcohol cause GERD?
What Is GERD?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a group of symptoms that are related to the location or amount of stomach acid produced. Your stomach is located in your gastrointestinal tract (GI tract). Your GI tract is the hollow organ that leads from your mouth, through your stomach and small intestines to your colon.
Since stomach acid is required to help digest and absorb the nutrients found in food, your body produces large quantities of it daily, and it plays a vital role in nutrition. If stomach acid finds its way to locations where it should not be, or if it is overproduced, you can start to experience symptoms of GERD.
Some common symptoms of GERD include:
- Burning in your chest after eating (heartburn)
- Chest pain
- Chronic cough
- Difficulty swallowing
- Disrupted sleep
- Regurgitation (burping) food or a sour taste in the mouth
Alcohol use can worsen many of the symptoms of GERD.
Your primary care provider (PCP) or gastroenterologist can diagnose GERD. You may have to undergo a procedure called an endoscopy, where you are sedated and a tube is inserted down your throat with a camera on the end. This camera lets your doctor see the lining of the stomach and diagnose any stomach issues, like GERD.
How Alcohol Use Affects GERD
It is not clear how alcohol may cause or worsen the symptoms of GERD, but medical professionals know that alcohol use can cause:
- Irritation and inflammation of the stomach
- Impaired functioning of the lower esophageal sphincter
- Worsening of GERD symptoms, including Barrett’s esophagus
Alcohol Causes Irritation and Direct Damage
When you drink alcohol, the first place that it ends up in your stomach. Alcohol is an irritant to the lining of your stomach because it microscopically disrupts the membranes of your cells. This disruption causes inflammation (swelling and redness), which is the process your body uses to recruit cells from your bloodstream to heal damage. Sometimes this damage is from an infection, but in the case of alcohol, it is mechanical damage.
In the short term, inflammation helps heal, but chronic alcohol consumption causes long-term inflammation, which is damaging to tissue and leads to different types of cancers, autoimmune disease or cell death. While the death of a few cells is not life-threatening since cells die in your body every day, chronic inflammation makes it harder for them to replenish.
The above paragraph describes the mechanism that most medical professionals will cite when they are talking about alcohol and GERD. However, there are some other plausible explanations as well, and remember that all of these effects may be happening together.
Alcohol and Impaired Functioning of the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES)
The esophagus is the tube that leads from the mouth to the stomach. There are several muscles along the way that help push food down the esophagus, but your body must make sure that the mixture of acid and food do not end up back in your esophagus once it starts digesting food (vomiting).
There is a muscle at the junction of your esophagus and stomach called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Some studies have shown that alcohol impairs the LES’s ability to contract, or close, which may cause regurgitation of acid back into the esophagus.
Alcohol and Worsened Barrett’s Esophagus Symptoms
Barrett’s esophagus is a rare, but serious, symptom of GERD. Alcohol use can worsen Barrett’s esophagus. This is a rare complication of GERD that changes the cells of the lower esophagus.
Sometimes the cells of the esophagus can change to function like cells that line the intestines. While this condition has symptoms, they are very similar to GERD and is hard to diagnose. Barrett’s esophagus greatly increases the risk of esophageal cancer. If you drink alcohol with this condition, it may increase your risk for esophageal cancer.
Can I Drink Alcohol With GERD?
Alcohol may or may not cause GERD on its own, but it probably can make it worse. If you have GERD already, you should limit your consumption of alcohol.
Excessive alcohol consumption, regardless of whether you have GERD, can lead to long-term health issues, including addiction. If you’re concerned about your alcohol consumption, talk with your doctor or speak with one of the representatives at The Recovery Village.
Key Points: Alcohol and GERD
There are several important takeaways to remember about alcohol use and GERD, including:
- Alcohol probably does not cause GERD
- Regular consumption of alcohol may mask or worsen some symptoms of GERD
- Alcohol is an irritant and causes long-term inflammation
- Alcohol can mask or worsen Barrett’s esophagus, which is a rare complication of GERD that can lead to cancer
- Limit your alcohol consumption if you have GERD
If you or someone you know needs treatment for alcohol abuse or addiction, The Recovery Village can help. We have facilities located across the country and offer personalized treatment tailored to each client’s needs. To take the first step toward recovery, call The Recovery Village today.
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Anderson, Lesley A., et al. “The Association Between Alcohol and Reflux Esophagitis, Barrett’s Esophagus, and Esophageal Adenocarcinoma.” Gastroenterology, 2009. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Barrett’s Esophagus | NIDDK.” (n.d.) Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
Chen, Shao-hua, et al. “Is Alcohol Consumption Associated with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease?” Journal of Zhejiang University, 2010. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
Freeman, David. “12 Health Risks of Chronic Heavy Drinking.” WebMD, 2009. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
P, Jeffrey, and James C Higgins. “The Role of Alcohol Use in Dyspepsia.” American Family Physician, 2014. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
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