It’s no secret that alcohol abuse can cause serious health consequences. Drinking too much, either long-term or on a single occasion, can affect almost every part of the body — including the brain, heart, liver, pancreas and immune system.
Some experts believe that the damage caused by excessive drinking may be explained by the theory of endotoxemia — when certain bacteria break through the lining of the stomach and cause other, toxic bacteria to be released into the gut and enter the bloodstream. When this happens, an abundance of endotoxins — highly toxic bacteria in the outer layer of the small intestine — break free of the digestive tract and spread throughout the body. It’s thought that endotoxins are responsible for chronic inflammation, which can cause permanent damage to surrounding tissue.
The Danger of Chronic Inflammation
Research suggests that chronic inflammation may be the underlying cause of major diseases including obesity, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, heart disease and cancer. It’s believed that where exactly in the body a disease develops depends on where endotoxins land and settle. And if enough endotoxins poison the blood— as in the case of binge drinking, for example — the result can be deadly.
In short, too much alcohol is thought to cause endotoxins to leak into the gut, a condition referred to as “leaky gut” and medically known as intestinal permeability or hyperpermeability. This causes a break in the body’s natural gastric defense barrier, putting a person at higher risk for serious diseases. Doctors continue to study the gut, which is the body’s largest immune-system organ.
What a Single Episode of Binge Drinking Can Do
In a recent study published in the May 2014 issue of the journal PLoS One, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester found that a single episode of binge drinking was linked to activity in the immune system potentially resulting in fever, inflammation and tissue damage.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking is defined as a drinking pattern that results in a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or above that occurs with approximately four alcoholic drinks for women and five drinks for men over a period of about two hours.
The researchers tested 25 people (11 men and 14 women) who were given enough alcohol to raise their blood alcohol level to at least the legal limit (0.08 g/dL) within one hour. When blood samples from the participants were studied, evidence of endotoxins was present in the blood.
This led the scientists to believe that the binge drinking episode made the participants’ intestines “leaky” by allowing gram-negative bacteria to break through the cells of the gastric barrier, which were destroyed by the rapid influx of alcohol. This allowed endotoxins to enter the circulatory system and be immediately detected as foreign substances by the immune system, which triggered the fever, inflammation and tissue damage in the study participants.
The only bacteria that should occupy and be active in the small intestine are gram-positive Lactobacillus, bacteria that aid in digestion.
Previous research has linked the concept of leaky gut and increased endotoxins in the blood to many of the health problems found in people who abuse alcohol. However, the University of Massachusetts Medical School study is key in demonstrating that even a single episode of binge drinking can lead to damaging health effects.
Nurturing the Gut After Alcohol Abuse
Over the many years I’ve been treating people recovering from alcohol abuse and addiction, gut-specific therapies have been part of the overall treatment plan to move individuals back towards optimal health and wellness. Supporting the entire gastrointestinal system using a range of naturopathic treatments can help repair damage to the gut and potentially reduce or prevent the health consequences that may develop from endotoxemia due to excessive drinking.
The first step is to remove the cause of the problem, which is ethanol. This is the type of alcohol that’s safe to drink and commonly found in beer, wine and liquor. Ethanol is also found in fermented foods, such as fruits, and other foods with sugar that can ferment in the presence of yeast, such as bread.
Other common contributors to leaky gut that need to be addressed before nutrition treatment is started include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics, food sensitivities, intestinal infection, inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and other chronic inflammatory conditions. The gastrointestinal effects of these conditions can inhibit the success of nutrition treatment.
Nutrition Treatment for People in Alcohol Recovery
After obstacles to healing have been removed, the focus of endotoxemia treatment is to nurture and rebuild the gut. This can be accomplished with the following nutritional treatments based on the specific needs of the recovering person:
- Dietary changes to eliminate ethanol
- Digestive enzymes
- Natural anti-inflammatory agents, such as turmeric and ginger
- Essential fatty acids
- Prebiotics and probiotics
- Vitamin D
An important part of treatment is nutritional counseling to educate the person recovering from alcohol abuse about the consequences of “sugar binging,” which can mimic addictive behavior and substitute the effects of alcohol on the gut. Although the alcohol may be gone, the damage from endotoxemia that can lead to other health issues may remain.
The good news is that endotoxemia is treatable. For treatment to work, a more comprehensive, holistic approach to alcohol recovery is required. Careful attention to nutrition is an essential part of the program, and a serious shift is needed for harmful alcohol-related behaviors to be replaced with new conscientious ones that promote overall recovery and a return to healthfulness.