Effects and What to Do
- Alcohol can cause gas, bloating, and stomach pain, even if you don’t have a digestive condition.
- Dry red wines, wine spritzers, light lagers, vodka, and gin may have less impact on your stomach.
- Talk to your doctor if symptoms persist after you space out drinks, drink water, or stop drinking.
Hangovers aren’t the only consequence of enjoying a few alcoholic beverages — alcohol can also cause some pretty unpleasant stomach symptoms, like gas and indigestion.
These effects can be particularly problematic for people with digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, or Chrohn’s disease.
But alcohol can still cause tummy trouble even if you don’t have a diagnosed gastrointestinal condition, according to Emma Laing, RDN, director of dietetics at the University of Georgia and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Here’s a breakdown of the alcohols that are hardest and easiest on your stomach as well as some tips to enjoy your drink, pain-free.
Which alcohols affect your stomach most?
First and foremost, consider the ABV (alcohol by volume).
“The stronger and more concentrated an alcoholic drink is, the more damage it will do to the gastrointestinal tract,” says Dr. Laura Purdy, a board-certified family medicine physician and National Medical Director for Rise Medical.
Therefore, limit or avoid:
- High-proof liquors
- Fortified wines
- High-ABV beers
Another thing to consider is a specific set of carbohydrates called FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols).
If you have a FODMAP intolerance, drinking alcohols high in FODMAPs could cause gas, bloating, and stomach pain. These alcohols include spirits and dessert wines like:
- Sweet wines like moscato, white zinfandel, and some rieslings
Keep in mind, too, that carbonated beverages like beer and hard seltzers might have a low alcohol content, but they can still cause bloating because they release carbon dioxide gas in your body.
Which alcohols affect your stomach the least?
According to Purdy, the best alcohols for a sensitive stomach are those with lower alcohol and sugar contents, including:
- Light lager: These beers have fewer calories, plus a lower alcohol content.
- Dry red wine: These wines offer potential gut health benefits and have low residual sugar levels. Examples include chianti, Bordeaux, tempranillo, barbera, and cabernet franc.
- Vodka and gin: Vodka and gin are much lower in FODMAPs than most other spirits. That said, they do have a higher ABV, which could counter the benefits of being low in FODMAPs.
- Wine spritzer: Wine can be tricky, as the lowest-alcohol wines tend to have the most sugar — and those with less sugar have higher alcohol content. Still, you can always make a wine spritzer by adding seltzer to dilute the drink and cut down the alcohol content.
How alcohol affects your stomach
While in your stomach and small intestine, alcohol can wreak havoc on your digestive system by triggering symptoms like:
- Acid reflux: Alcohol not only causes your digestive system to churn out more acid, it also relaxes the muscles that prevent digestive juices from creeping back up your esophagus. It’s a perfect storm for triggering acid reflux.
- Diarrhea or constipation: Alcohol is a toxin that disrupts your digestive tract’s normal routine. This can either speed up or slow down digestion, leading to issues like diarrhea or constipation.
- Gastritis and ulcers: Alcohol damages the cells that protect the stomach lining from acid and digestive enzymes, Purdy says. This promotes inflammation that can eventually lead to heartburn, gastritis, and ulcers.
- Gas: Because of how alcohol damages the lining of your small intestine, it can throw off the balance between good and bad bacteria in your gut. This imbalance can trigger GI symptoms, like gas or diarrhea.
In the end, alcohol is generally bad for your stomach. But there may be one silver lining for wine drinkers.
A 2019 study found red wine drinkers had a more diverse gut microbiome than those who didn’t drink red wine. White wine had a similar effect, though to a lesser extent.
Researchers believe this may relate to the fact that grape skin — especially red grape skin — contains high levels of polyphenols. This plant compound boosts beneficial bacteria while hindering the growth of harmful bacteria.
What to do about it
Here are Purdy’s top tips for minimizing alcohol’s negative impact on your stomach.
- Drink a glass of water with every alcoholic beverage. Alcohol has a diuretic effect, meaning it causes more frequent urination and can increase your risk of dehydration. Water can help you stay hydrated and may ward off constipation. If you’re having more than a couple of drinks, swap out a glass of water for fruit juice, unsweetened coconut water, or a sports drink to replenish electrolytes.
- Eat something an hour or so before drinking. Having food in your stomach slows down the digestion of alcohol, which Purdy says can minimize side effects and limit damage to your stomach lining.
- Sip drinks slowly. The longer you nurse your drink, the more time your digestive system has to process the alcohol.
- Avoid drinking right before bed. Going to bed within just 1-2 hours after drinking can increase your risk of acid reflux symptoms — stomach acid is more likely to leak into the esophagus when you’re lying down.
- Listen to your body. If you begin to notice heartburn, nausea, stomach pains, or any other kind of abdominal discomfort while drinking alcohol, Purdy suggests switching to something non-alcoholic.
If your stomach issues persist long after you’ve finished your drink, talk with a doctor who can rule out any potential underlying GI conditions and offer guidance on finding the right treatment.
“It’s pretty rare that someone needs to abstain completely from alcohol due to side effects on their stomach. Most people will be able to find a happy medium where they can still enjoy occasional drinks without sacrificing their gut health,” Purdy says.
That said, if you have a history of stomach issues, such as gastritis or ulcers, your doctor will most likely recommend avoiding alcohol completely.
Alcohol is not kind to your stomach or digestive tract. As a result, it can cause a lot of short-term discomfort like gas, bloating, and acid reflux.
Long-term heavy drinking may lead to more serious problems like ulcers, gastritis, or even stomach cancer.
The best way to limit these negative effects is to drink in moderation. You might also opt for lower-proof alcohols with less sugar, like dry wines, light beers, vodka, and gin.
If you start experiencing stomach problems whenever you drink alcohol, cutting back could make a difference. That said, it never hurts to make an appointment with your doctor to pinpoint the cause of your symptoms.