Bloating, puffiness, digestives issues—they’re all connected to inflammation. And if you drink, these issues may become chronic. But why does alcohol cause inflammation? Here’s an explainer that details the alcohol-inflammation connection and tips to fix the problem.
Inflammation: An Introduction
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s natural healing response to infection, injury, or toxins. Your immune system releases chemicals that create symptoms such as swelling, redness, pain, and warmth to protect and repair damaged tissue. All of this is part of our inflammatory response.
Acute inflammation typically resolves on its own. Chronic inflammation, however, is a prolonged response from long-term exposure to harmful substances—such as alcohol. Inflammation can damage healthy cells, tissues, and organs and cause serious health conditions.
What causes inflammation?
Basically, anything your body can interpret as injury or infection can cause inflammation. Acute inflammation occurs in response to things such as cuts, twists, or illnesses, while chronic inflammation is caused by long-term exposure to harmful substances or stress.
Today, we’re all constantly bombarded with toxins, chemicals, and residues that can cause chronic inflammation. In fact, our environment may be a root cause of our modern proclivity or allergies and other inflammatory reactions. But behaviors like smoking and high sugar intake contribute heavily. And alcohol is a major culprit, especially for those who drink frequently or in excess.
Inflammation can be measured using inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), which is made in the liver. When these markers are elevated, it means there is inflammation present, which can lead to an extended state of oxidation that can damage both healthy and injured tissue.
Why Does Alcohol Cause Inflammation?
Excessive alcohol intake causes chronic inflammation in various ways:
- Increased levels of lipopolysaccharides (LPS) throughout the body.
- Increased C-reactive protein (CRP) levels.
- Disruption of healthy bacteria, causing dysbiosis and poor gut health.
Alcohol Increases Lipopolysaccharides (LPS) Levels
Research has shown that drinking alcohol can increase levels of lipopolysaccharides (LPS) and their spreading from the gut to other parts of the body. LPS are endotoxins found in the outer membrane of certain bacteria. They are known to be a main cause of chronic inflammation in the body.
When we drink, LPS counts spike because alcohol dislodges them from gut bacteria and into our bloodstream. It’s the liver’s job to rid our body of these endotoxins. Of course, alcohol can also harm your liver’s functioning and exacerbate this problem.
Alcohol Increases C-Reactive Protein Levels
Alcohol can increase c-reactive protein (CRP) levels in the body, an inflammatory marker. This is due to the alteration of the lining of the intestines and the colon caused by chronic, high levels of alcohol consumption.
When the lining of these organs becomes less capable of containing bacteria, some of the bacteria may seep into the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. This causes the immune system to view the bacteria as a threat and induce inflammation. When the liver senses inflammation, it produces more CRP. This can become a vicious cycle when alcohol is present.
Alcohol disrupts healthy bacteria, causing dysbiosis and poor gut health.
By harming gut bacteria, alcohol induces poor gut health and possibly dysbiosis, an imbalance of the healthy bacteria and gut microflora. Poor gut health negatively affects the immune system, promotes the overgrowth of other bacteria, and increases the presence of endotoxins,which activate proteins and immune cells which increase inflammation.
Alcohol also weakens the intestinal barrier, allowing toxins and bacteria to pass into the bloodstream and spread to other organs. This sets off our body’s defenses, thus worsening the inflammatory response.
This can cause common issues like stomach bloating and more severe conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. Mental health and mood can also suffer.
What are the effects of chronic inflammation from alcohol?
The effects of chronic inflammation can be wide-ranging and may include asthma, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, sinusitis, hepatitis, heart disease, and other serious conditions. It can also be a contributing factor in Alzheimer’s disease, depression, heart disease, diabetes, and many other serious disorders.
Inflammation from alcohol is particularly connected with skin conditions, hepatitis, cirrhosis, infections, heart disease, muscle/joint issues, and possibly brain damage. It’s clear that consuming alcohol, and particularly alcohol use disorder, invite a variety of alcohol related medical conditions.
Alcohol has been linked to skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, puffiness, rosacea, and itchiness. Researchers believe that this is due to alcohol’s pro-oxidant effects. When consumed, alcohol produces free radicals that harm the cells and tissues in the body, causing acute inflammation. This inflammation can then spread, which can worsen existing skin conditions or cause new ones to develop.
Additionally, alcohol can harm the immune system and decrease the body’s ability to regulate inflammation. This can also contribute to skin issues like eczema and psoriasis.
Hepatitis and Cirrhosis
Alcohol increases the risk of developing both hepatitis and cirrhosis. Heavy drinking can cause the liver to become inflamed and swollen, leading to alcoholic hepatitis. If alcohol consumption continues, it can lead to cirrhosis – scarring of the liver. Both of these conditions involve inflammation and oxidative stress, which can cause organ damage and dysfunction.
Alcohol inflammation increases the risk of bacterial and viral infections, especially in the lungs and respiratory tract. This is because chronic inflammation from alcohol damages the immune cells and fine hairs that clear viruses and bacteria out of the airways, making someone more vulnerable to these types of infections.
When inflammation is present, tissues and organs, including the heart, can become damaged, leading to an increased risk of coronary artery disease. Additionally, chronic consumption of alcohol can lead to alcoholic cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart changes shape. Inflammation in the heart, known as myocarditis, can cause shortness of breath or a buildup of fluid, while inflammation in the small tubes that bring air to the lungs can also cause shortness of breath.
Joint and Muscle Conditions
Alcohol-induced inflammation can lead to various joint and muscle conditions. The most common joint and muscle conditions connected to alcohol include:
- Autoimmune conditions: These are conditions where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues, resulting in inflammation and pain. Examples include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and psoriatic arthritis.
- Gout: This is a type of inflammatory arthritis, caused by a build-up of uric acid in the body. Excessive alcohol consumption can worsen the symptoms of gout, causing flare-ups and painful joints.
- Fibromyalgia: This is a disorder characterized by widespread muscle pain and fatigue. Heavy alcohol consumption is known to worsen the symptoms of fibromyalgia, leading to increased pain and stiffness in the joints.
- Osteoarthritis: This is a degenerative joint condition, where the cartilage between the joints wears away over time. Alcohol consumption can worsen this condition, leading to increased inflammation, pain, and stiffness.
Alcohol-induced brain damage is a condition where the brain’s cells are exposed to alcohol pro-inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. Repeated exposure to alcohol leads to long-term activation of these chemicals, resulting in neuronal damage, cell death, white and gray matter damage, and cognitive dysfunction.
The white matter damage is responsible for problem-solving, multitasking, and memory, while the gray matter damage affects movement, memory, and emotions. Additionally, alcohol can activate the HPA axis, leading to increased anxiety and stress.
The 4 Worst Drinking Habits for Inflammation
For those prone to inflammation, the 4 worst drinking habits are:
- Heavy drinking (more than 2 drinks per day)
- Drinking alcohol daily.
- Drinking alcohol with added sugar (sugary drinks).
- Binge drinking (more than 4 servings in 2 hours).
All of these habits cause immune reactions and inflammation. This is why doctors advise moderation when inflammation is an issue.
To stay within guidelines of “moderation”, the CDC recommends women limit themselves to one daily drink and men to two. Drinking every day, even if it is within the recommended number of drinks, could still cause inflammation. Also, those who choose to drink should avoid combining alcohol with a poor diet full of processed and sugary foods, as this will only make things worse.
Tips to Reduce Inflammation from Alcohol
There are 4 main ways to reduce inflammation from alcohol:
- Change your relationship with alcohol
- Staying well-hydrated
- Dietary changes
- Change the type of alcohol you drink
Change Your Relationship with Alcohol
The surest way to reduce alcohol inflammation is to cut your weekly servings or quit altogether. There are lots of avenues for moderating alcohol. These include:
- Reading self-help books aimed at people who want to quit or cut back.
- Replacing alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic beverages, such as non-alcoholic beer, non-alcoholic wine, and non-alcoholic spirits. See our buying guides to learn about these products.
- Following the “every other” rule of drinking, which involves alternating between alcoholic drinks and water.
- Taking an extended break from alcohol to detox, such as Dry January or Sober October.
- Creating clear drinking goals that are written down in an alcohol contract.
- Inviting accountability by using a coach or accountability partner, including penalties for not meeting goals.
- Environmental changes, such as places you go, people you spend time with, and what you bring home from the store. This helps limit cravings and temptation.
Staying hydrated can help reduce inflammation from alcohol by flushing out toxins and replenishing electrolytes. Also, drinking an 8 ounce glass of water after each alcoholic beverage can help counteract some of the negative effects of alcohol, such as dehydration and inflammation. Hydrating before, during, and after drinking can help reduce inflammation and keep the body’s cells healthy.
Make Dietary Changes
Dietary changes can help reduce inflammation caused by alcohol. Increase the consumption of anti-inflammatory foods, such as:
- Fatty fish,
You can also reduce consumption of inflammatory foods like:
- Refined carbohydrates
- French fries and other fried foods
- Red meat
- Processed meat
- Sugar, including sugary alcoholic beverages
Eating a low-sugar, protein-dense meal before drinking can help reduce alcohol absorption and prevent cravings, which will help avoid excessive alcohol consumption.
Change the type of alcohol you drink
All forms of alcohol can be inflammatory. However, research suggests some may be worse than others. All of it assumes the person is drinking moderately. Here’s the rundown:
Best alcohol for inflammation:
- Wine: Red wine in particular has been noted for it’s antioxidant properties, which are attributed to polyphenols. A polyphenol called resveratrol might help prevent heart damage by lowering inflammation risks.
- Champagne: Champagne is also high in phenolic compounds, giving it some of the same antioxidant properties as wine.
- Vodka: Vodka is a clear liquor that’s low in sugar and congeners. Congeners are thought to be a primary cause of hangovers. And the lack of sugar helps limit inflammation. But if you add sugary mixers, this benefit disappears.
Worst alcohol for inflammation:
- Beer: While beer is low in congeners, it is heavy in grains, which combined with alcohol can promote inflammation. Non-alcoholic beer, on the other hand, may have antioxidant properties.
- Bourbon/Whiskey: Bourbon and whiskey have high levels of methanol, which breaks down into formic acid and formaldehyde. These toxins contribute to inflammation.
- Sugary drinks: high-sugar drinks and sugary cocktails are probably the worst for inflammation. When we add sugar to the mix, it generally exacerbates issues related to alcohol. Avoid combining the two, if at all possible.
Can alcohol reduce inflammation?
Research has suggested that moderate amounts of alcohol can have an anti-inflammatory effect, but more research is needed. Moderate alcohol consumption is associated with lower amounts of two inflammatory markers, c-reactive proteins and interleukin-6, which are risk factors for certain forms of cardiovascular disease.
But once the consumption level moves past moderation, these positive relationships are reversed. If you find it difficult to stay within the guidelines of moderation, alcohol is probably not the best choice for reducing inflammation. Quite the opposite. It’s more likely to hurt than help.
Conclusions & what do do now
Overall, it’s important to remember that alcohol should be consumed in moderation and that different types may have a different impact on your health. If you’re concerned about inflammation from alcohol, try going alcohol-free for one month, maybe replacing your favorite drinks with non-alcoholic replacements and mocktails. See our buying guides for NA products that will let you have a “drink” while trimming your servings.