How Alcohol Affects the Digestive System
The human digestive system, from entry to exit, consists of the following organs: mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (colon), rectum, and anus. In addition, three accessory organs – the liver, pancreas, and gall bladder – work with the GI tract to break down food products All food and liquid consumed via the mouth follows this specific route through the GI tract.
As we follow alcohol’s path through the human body, we will briefly discuss the function of each organ, as well as how the alcohol impacts each along the way.
The mouth begins the digestive process when food enters and chewing begins. The mouth creates saliva, which helps break down the food and sends it along the rest of the digestive tract. Alcohol is second only to tobacco in it’s ability to increase the risk of mouth cancer and gum disease. It can also cause bad breath or unpleasant taste in the mouth, as well as dull the senses, including taste and smell. Alcohol can negatively affect salivary glands and mucus production, as well as dry out the tongue.
The Throat and Esophagus
The throat, or pharynx, receives contents from the mouth and carries it along its journey to the esophagus. Drinking large quantities of alcohol can cause a sore throat, either from heartburn or from the alcohol drying out the tissues. It also increases the risk of throat cancer.
The esophagus carries contents from the throat to the stomach. Between the esophagus and stomach is a sphincter muscle which functions to keep acid from the stomach rushing back up to the esophagus and throat. Alcohol relaxes this sphincter so it may not work properly. The stomach acid coming up is what causes heartburn. Chronic acid reflux can lead to a condition called Barrett’s disease, in which the lining of the esophagus becomes scarred from the damage. Persons with Barrett’s are at a greater risk for developing esophageal cancer, an affliction with a poor prognosis.
The stomach receives contents from the esophagus, and furthers the breakdown process by producing acids and digestive enzymes. Alcohol irritates the lining of the stomach, and can lead to gastritis. Symptoms of gastritis may include nausea, pain, bloating, indigestion, and vomiting. Gastritis and over-consumption of alcohol may contribute to stomach cancer, another cancer with a very poor prognosis.
The pancreas produces hormones, as well as enzymes which pass into the small intestine. Heavy alcohol use can cause inflammation of the pancreas, both acute (immediate onset) and chronic. Chronic pancreatitis occurs due to long-term damage to the pancreas, is most often caused by alcohol abuse, and can be very painful. Irreversible damage may lead to lifelong medication so that the body can continue to digest food and maintain blood sugar levels. It also increases the risk of diabetes, as well as pancreatic cancer, which has a very poor prognosis.
More on how alcohol affects the digestive system to come!
IF you suspect you or someone you know is an alcoholic, please seek help immediately.