For some of us, drinking alcohol can leave you feeling bloated and uncomfortable.
In some cases, it can be severe enough to make you have to end your night early.
But why exactly does alcohol cause bloating?
In this article, we’re going to cover the science behind how alcohol affects your stomach and the different causes of stomach bloating when drinking.
How alcohol affects your stomach
To understand why you may experience bloating when drinking alcohol, we first need to cover how alcohol affects your stomach.
1- Stomach acid production
It’s well known that alcohol can alter levels of acid secretion from your stomach. In fact, studies have shown that drinks with low alcohol content such as beer can stimulate acid secretions.
Interestingly, stronger alcohol drinks like whiskey and vodka have not been shown to have the same effect.
2 – Relaxation of sphincter muscles
Your stomach has sphincters which contract and relax when eating to control what goes in and out of your stomach.
Sphincters are specialized muscles that act as valves.
Alcohol is a muscle relaxant and can cause dilation of the sphincters and therefore alters the normal control of the stomach.
3- Stomach lining inflammation
Alcohol is a toxin and causes irritation of the stomach lining. As a result, you get inflammation and erosions of the mucosal lining (internal stomach lining).
These changes are usually more associated with long term regular alcohol consumption and not usually if drinking within normal limits.
4 – Disruption of peristalsis
Your whole gastrointestinal tract from your food pipe to the large bowel is controlled by smooth muscle.
This is a specialized muscle that you don’t have control over that works autonomously to help move food down from top to bottom.
The process by which these muscles contract in a rhythmic fashion to push food down the right way is called peristalsis.
As alcohol is a muscle relaxant, it can interfere with normal peristalsis.
Why does alcohol cause stomach bloating?
Not everyone who drinks alcohol gets stomach bloating, but for those that do, it can be related to a combination of the points listed above.
Your gastrointestinal tract is working away at all times of the day to secrete acid, bile, and various other enzymes to digest food.
In addition, your autonomic nervous system is working to control the muscles which co-ordinate the movement of food from your stomach to large bowel.
All of this is happening in the background without you knowing about it and is mainly controlled by your autonomic nervous system and chemical signals.
Seeing as alcohol is a nervous system depressant (meaning it slows it down), it can have significant effects on all these systems which are fine-tuned to work in harmony.
As a result, drinking alcohol can cause stomach pains and cramps as well as diarrhea.
In summary, there are several ways in which alcohol affects your gastrointestinal tract and can cause bloating.
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Gluten as a cause for stomach bloating
Aside from the alcohol itself having various effects on your gastrointestinal tract, the ingredients in your choice of beverage can also cause problems.
If you’re someone who gets bloating often, even when it’s not necessarily associated with drinking alcohol, you may have intolerances to certain ingredients.
This is particularly the case if you enjoy drinking beer as it contains gluten.
One of the common causes of stomach bloating when drinking alcohol is related to gluten intolerance.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye which are used to make most of the beer and spirits you drink.
The problem with gluten intolerance arises mainly with beer, lager, and stout drinks as the distillation process that spirits like vodka go through removes all the gluten.
You’ve may have heard of gluten in the context of a condition called celiac disease, however, this should not be confused with gluten intolerance.
Celiac disease is an auto-immune condition triggered by gluten that has serious health effects whereas gluten intolerance will often cause bloating and discomfort only.
With that being said, you’ll find gluten-free beers everywhere nowadays so this problem can be avoided if you know gluten doesn’t sit well with you.
Often, stomach bloating can be realted to certain ingredients or chemicals in your alcohol drink, rather than the alcohol itself being the cause.
Alcohol and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a common condition that affects many people in the world but interestingly it’s not very well understood why it happens.
It affects the large intestine with common signs and symptoms including, bloating, gas, abdominal pain, constipation/diarrhea.
If you’re someone who suffers from IBS, you’ll be all too familiar with the discomfort it’s associated with.
People with IBS usually have particular triggers that flare their symptoms. These can be related to certain foods, stress and hormone levels.
Alcohol is another trigger common trigger and is probably associated with its effects on the nervous system which alter the normal balance in signals that your bowel receives.
Does alcohol cause indigestion?
Indigestion is described as a burning sensation in the upper abdomen/chest which is often worse when lying flat or after eating.
It’s caused by the acid in your stomach splashing back into the esophagus (food pipe) which irritates the lining.
Drinking has long been associated with indigestion and there are several studies that have shown a strong link between them.
It’s particularly a problem in people who have more than three alcoholic drinks a day or drink at least five times a week as explained by a recent study.
However, indigestion and stomach bloating should not be confused as they don’t produce the same symptoms.
What are the long term effects of alcohol on the stomach?
Drinking regularly over a longer period of time can cause stomach lining erosions and ulcers. Alcohol is a carcinogen meaning that it is known to increase the risk of developing cancer.
One recent study showed there are strong associations between alcohol and cancer in seven different areas of the body.
These include cancer of the mouth, larynx (voice box), esophagus, liver, colon (large bowel), rectum and breast.
Why do you get stomach pains when drinking alcohol?
Stomach bloating will usually be associated with a certain degree of discomfort and pain.
However, it’s important to note that stomach pains when drinking alcohol can also be associated with several other conditions, some of which have serious health implications.
You should consider stopping drinking and seek medical advice for further investigation in this case.
Anything else to consider?
Stomach bloating after drinking alcohol is usually a sign from your body that something isn’t right.
If you are experiencing any kind of pain or bloating when drinking alcohol, you should consider seeking advice from your doctor and stopping drinking in the meantime.
A top tip would be to keep a diary of exactly when you experience bloating and stomach pains and with what alcoholic drink this happened with.
You’ll probably learn a lot from it with regards to triggers of your bloating and you can also show your physician.
Stomach bloating after drinking – Final words
That brings us to the end of our look into stomach bloating when drinking alcohol.
There are several different causes and in most cases, there isn’t one specific reason that is responsible and more a combination of a few.
We’ve covered some of the common causes of how alcohol can cause stomach bloating however there are many more which is beyond the scope of this article.
If in doubt, always discuss with your physician to be on the safe side.