How Does Alcohol Affect Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
By Gregory Seltzer, MD, Gastroenterologist—Virtua Gastroenterology
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition that affects between 25 and 45 million people in the United States. The symptoms vary but usually include some combination of cramping, stomach pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation.
There is a long list of foods and beverages that can potentially worsen IBS symptoms—including alcohol. While some people suffering from IBS have to eliminate alcohol from their diet completely, others can still enjoy an occasional drink.
If you suffer from IBS, you need to understand how your body reacts to alcohol so you can manage how much alcohol you drink.
What causes IBS?
While researchers are not exactly sure what causes IBS, a number of triggers have been identified that can lead to symptoms. Triggers and symptoms vary from person to person, but the most common include:
- Foods. It’s not yet clear how food affects IBS symptoms, but many people report worsening symptoms when they consume chocolate, fats, fruits, beans, cabbage, dairy products, carbonated beverages, coffee and alcohol.
- Stress. Although stress does not cause IBS, it has been shown to aggravate symptoms.
- Hormones. Women are more likely to have IBS than men, so researchers believe that hormonal changes may worsen symptoms.
Unlike inflammatory bowel conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, IBS doesn’t cause damage to your colon and doesn’t increase your risk of developing colon cancer.
How does alcohol affect IBS?
Alcohol has been shown to irritate the gut, which can lead to a flare-up of IBS symptoms. If alcohol is one of your triggers, you may notice increased cramping or bloating after consuming even a small amount. You also may notice diarrhea or constipation if you're especially sensitive to alcohol.
Depending on your level of sensitivity, even one alcoholic beverage can be enough to trigger a flare-up. Some alcoholic beverages may be more likely to cause flare-ups than others. For instance, many IBS patients report that beer significantly worsens their symptoms.
Some individuals report a noticeable improvement in IBS symptoms after giving up alcohol completely. Others experience relief after cutting back on the amount of alcohol they consume or by avoiding certain types or alcohol, such as beer.
How can I tell if alcohol is one of my IBS triggers?
It’s important to keep track of what you eat and drink, and the amounts, so you can clearly understand what foods or beverages worsen your symptoms.
If you're not sure if alcohol bothers you, eliminate it completely and see if your symptoms subside. Once your symptoms are stable, try one drink to see if it triggers your IBS symptoms. You can try this same technique with different types of alcohol to see if some are more tolerable than others. Of course, it's recommended that you drink alcohol in moderation—no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
Although IBS can cause some discomfort, most people are able to manage their symptoms by controlling diet and managing stress. However, you should talk to your doctor if you're experiencing severe symptoms that affect your quality of life.
To make an appointment with a Virtua gastroenterologist call 888-847-8823.
Updated July 8, 2020