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Alcohol and Inflammation

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Can Drinking Alcohol Cause Inflammation?

Yes, excessive alcohol consumption can cause inflammation.

Gut microflora-derived lipopolysaccharide (LPS) is one cause of inflammation. And alcohol can significantly increase the body’s transfer of LPS from the gut.

In healthy individuals, the liver plays a key role in detoxifying LPS. But alcohol can damage the liver, as well as the central nervous system (CNS), which also plays a role in preventing inflammation.

Basically, alcohol can not only cause inflammation, but it can also impair your body’s ability to regulate that inflammation.

This inflammation can further damage your body’s organs. It’s a vicious cycle that can affect your long-term health.

The body’s inflammatory response to alcohol will vary from person to person. It also depends on how much you drink.

Other factors like underlying health conditions will also play a role. For example, if you have a liver condition or weak immune system, your body may have even more difficulty fighting inflammation.

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Other Ways Alcohol Can Cause Inflammation

Heavy drinking for an extended period can cause several health issues, these issues can lead to intestinal inflammation. Over time, this inflammation causes organ dysfunction throughout the body, especially in the liver and the brain.

Large quantities of alcohol can alter the lining of the intestines and the colon. When the intestine becomes permeable, it can struggle to contain harmful bacteria, which can cause inflammation.

Alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis

Over time alcohol-induced inflammation can cause significant damage to your liver, leading to liver disease. The two most prominent liver diseases caused by alcohol-induced inflammation are alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis.

Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammatory condition caused by heavy drinking. Continued alcohol use can aggravate this condition.

Alcoholic hepatitis can be a precursor to severe liver disease, which includes:

  • Esophageal bleeding
  • Ascites
  • Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis
  • Hepatic encephalopathy
  • Organ failure
  • Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is late-stage scarring of the liver (fibrosis). Each time the liver is damaged, it tries to repair itself, which forms scar tissue.

As more scar tissue forms, the liver can have difficulty functioning. Advanced cirrhosis is life-threatening.

Both alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis are difficult to reverse.

Can Alcohol Contribute to Chronic Inflammation?

Yes, alcohol can contribute to chronic inflammation. In fact, chronic inflammation is often linked to alcohol-related health conditions.

When your body metabolizes alcohol in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, it can disrupt tissue homeostasis. This can cause chronic inflammation in the intestines.4

Alcohol can also cause inflammation in the joints, which is known as arthritis.1

However, alcohol may have some anti-inflammatory benefits. This is because alcohol consumption reduces certain biomarkers of inflammation like the TNF-alpha receptor 2,  interleukin-6, and c-reactive protein (CRP).1 So moderate alcohol consumption may ultimately reduce your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

But the keyword is moderate. Drinking in moderation refers to consuming no more than two drinks per day for men or one drink maximum per day for women.5

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Chronic Inflammation vs. Acute Inflammation

Alcohol can cause two types of inflammation; chronic inflammation and acute inflammation.

Chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation is a subtle inflammatory response that can worsen over time. Instead of fading away, chronic inflammation can start damaging healthy cells, tissues, and organs.

Over time this can lead to DNA damage, tissue death, and internal scarring. This can make your body vulnerable to several diseases, including:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Asthma
  • Cognitive decline and dementia for older adults

Acute inflammation

Unlike chronic inflammation, acute inflammation is more immediate and noticeable.

Acute alcohol-induced inflammation is an inflammatory response when alcohol is consumed. This often results in hangover symptoms like headaches and nausea.

Some other acute inflammation side effects include:

  • Dehydration
  • Face puffiness
  • Inflamed stomach lining
  • Swollen feet

These symptoms will typically go away within a few days after drinking.

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Can Alcohol Cause Joint and Muscle Pain?

Because alcohol can cause inflammation, it can also be the root cause of joint and muscle pain. Alcohol intake can bring on or trigger existing joint and muscle pain.

Joint and muscle pain can be very painful. The more alcohol you consume and the longer you abuse alcohol, the worse this pain can feel.

This is especially true if you suffer from gout, which is a common and painful type of inflammatory arthritis.1

What Health Conditions Can Develop From Alcohol Inflammation?

Alcohol inflammation can cause a number of health conditions.

Aside from regular weight gain, alcohol inflammation can cause fatty liver disease. This is a buildup of fats in the liver. Not everyone who has fatty liver disease has alcohol-induced fatty liver disease, but it is common with prolonged alcohol abuse.

Alcohol inflammation can also worsen arthritis, particularly if you suffer from gout, which is painful inflammatory arthritis.1 Alcohol can bring on gout attacks because it may be rich in purine.

If you have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), you may also be affected by alcohol inflammation. Alcohol consumption can trigger a flare-up in IBD. This is due to its pro-oxidant effects and damage to gut barrier functioning.6 Chronic alcohol intake can cause intestinal inflammation, alter the intestinal microbiota composition, and affect its immune homeostasis.4

Tips for Reducing Alcohol-Induced Inflammation

Alcohol-induced inflammation can cause health complications. These may range from mild to severe depending on how much alcohol you consume and for how long. Other health conditions will also influence the way alcohol affects you.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce alcohol-induced inflammation. The best way is to stop drinking alcohol. Cutting back on alcohol and only drinking in moderation may also help.

If you have trouble cutting back on drinking or quitting altogether, seek professional help. You may be dealing with alcohol use disorder (AUD), and giving up alcohol alone can be both challenging and dangerous.

Another way to fight alcohol-induced inflammation is by staying hydrated. Because alcohol dehydrates you, and dehydration can exacerbate inflammation, drink water while and after you drink alcohol. Staying hydrated can also help to prevent a hangover the next day.

If you are suffering from health complications due to alcohol-induced inflammation, consult your healthcare provider. Your doctor can prescribe you a treatment plan or medications for conditions like fatty liver disease, arthritis, and IBD.

Do You Have a Drinking Problem?

If you are worried about having a drinking problem, you are not alone. About 18 million adults in the United States struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD).2 AUD refers to drinking that causes distress or harm.

The symptoms of AUD vary depending on severity. However, generally, AUD symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following:2

If you or someone you know is struggling with a drinking problem, seek professional help. Detoxing from alcohol or cutting it out cold turkey can lead to alcohol withdrawal. This can be dangerous and even deadly.

Alcohol withdrawal can happen when heavy and prolonged alcohol use is stopped suddenly, or consumption is significantly reduced.3 It can happen within a few hours or a few days. 

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Sweating
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Sleeping problems
  • Hand tremors
  • Mood changes
  • Irritation
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

There are many treatment options available for alcohol use disorder (AUD) and addiction, including:

Inpatient Programs

Inpatient treatment takes place at a licensed residential treatment center.

These programs provide 24/7 comprehensive, structured care. You'll live in safe, substance-free housing and have access to professional medical monitoring. 

The first step of an inpatient program is detoxification. Then behavioral therapy and other services are introduced. These programs typically last 30, 60, or 90 days, sometimes longer.

Most programs help set up your aftercare once you complete the inpatient portion of your treatment.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs)

Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs) provide similar services to inpatient programs.

Services include:

  • Medical care
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Support groups
  • Other customized therapies

However, in a PHP program, you return home to sleep. Some services provide food and transportation, but services vary by program.

PHPs accept new patients and people who have completed an inpatient program and require additional intensive treatment.

Outpatient Programs

Outpatient treatment is less intensive than inpatient treatment or partial hospitalization programs. They are best for people who have a high motivation to recover but cannot leave their responsibilities at home, work, or school.

These programs organize your treatment session based on your schedule. The goal of outpatient treatment is to provide therapy, education, and support in a flexible environment.

Outpatient programs are often part of aftercare programs once you complete an inpatient or PHP program. It is important for people undergoing treatment to have a stable and supportive home environment without access to drugs and alcohol.

Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT)

Sometimes medications may be used in alcohol addiction treatment. These medicines can help reduce the negative side effects of detoxification and withdrawal. Others can help you reduce cravings and normalize body functions.

Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone are the most common medications used to treat AUD. 

When combined with other evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery.

Support Groups

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Self-Management And Recovery Training (SMART) are open to anyone with a substance use disorder.

They are peer-led organizations dedicated to helping each other remain sober. Support groups can be the first step towards recovery or part of a long-term aftercare plan.

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Updated on September 30, 2022
8 sources cited
  1. Alcohol.” Arthritis.
  2. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 11 Aug. 2021.
  3. Alcohol Use Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 11 July 2018.
  4. Bishehsari, Faraz, et al. “Alcohol and Gut-Derived Inflammation.” Alcohol Research : Current Reviews, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2017.
  5. Drinking Too Much Alcohol Can Harm Your Health. Learn the Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 May 2021.
  6. Swanson, Garth R, et al. “Pattern of Alcohol Consumption and Its Effect on Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Inflammatory Bowel Disease.” Alcohol (Fayetteville, N.Y.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2010. 
  7. Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  8. Wang, H Joe, et al. “Alcohol, Inflammation, and Gut-Liver-Brain Interactions in Tissue Damage and Disease Development.” World Journal of Gastroenterology, Baishideng, 21 Mar. 2010.

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