When you drink too much alcohol, be it in one single “binge” session or excessive drinking over time, it can take a toll on your health. Some of the most severe issues that the abuse of alcohol can cause, or complicate, occur in the stomach. One frequent complaint is stomach ulcers.
Whether or not alcohol causes ulcers are still heavily debated, but one thing is clear: excess alcohol can create the perfect environment for an ulcer to form and not heal. A person who abuses or is addicted to alcohol may need to seek treatment to prevent health complications like ulcers. Vertava Health offers several treatment options at our facilities throughout the nation to help individuals overcome alcohol addiction.
What Are Stomach Ulcers?
Ulcers are painful sores that can form in the lining of the esophagus, stomach, or small intestine. They occur when the protective mucus that lines the stomach stops functioning effectively. When this happens, stomach acid can damage the stomach tissue, causing an ulcer. Some ulcers can become so severe that they produce a hole in the stomach wall. This is known as perforation.
Ulcers are fairly common. An estimated one in every ten people in Western countries will have an ulcer at some point in their lives. Anyone can get an ulcer, but they are seen most in individuals over the age of 50.
Ulcers are easy to treat but can cause serious health problems if they are ignored. Several things can irritate an existing ulcer and make it worse, including alcohol.
Even though ulcers are treatable, they are typically slow to heal and often recur. It is important that someone with an ulcer quickly identify the cause, eliminate it, and get the necessary treatment to heal.
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What Causes Stomach Ulcers?
There is a strong association between ulcers and long-term use of painkillers, but the most common cause is when a germ called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infects the stomach.
This type of bacteria is said to be present in more than half of the people in the world and usually first develops during childhood. It is uncertain how H. pylori spread, but experts believe it can be passed from person to person through contact with saliva, vomit, fecal matter, or contaminated food or water. Most people are never aware that they have been infected with the germ because it never makes them sick. It seems that this is because many people are born with high resistance to the H. pylori bacteria.
While this bacteria seems to be the main trigger of an ulcer, some people develop ulcers without the bacteria present. Experts have yet to figure out why some people develop ulcers without being infected with H. pylori; however, they have discovered several behaviors linked to the development of an ulcer.
Over-use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs including aspirin and ibuprofen), smoking, stress, genetics, and drinking alcohol are all believed to be contributing factors.
The Connection Between Alcohol Use And Ulcers
Experts have different opinions on if alcohol actually causes ulcers, or if there is simply a correlation between the two. However, it’s widely agreed that excess drinking can increase the risk of developing an ulcer, keep an ulcer from healing, and make the already painful condition much worse.
Doctors believe alcohol could be a culprit because it can cause the body to produce more gastric acid, which is one factor that leads to stomach ulcers.
Other researchers have discovered a connection between the H. pylori bacteria that most often causes an ulcer and excessive alcohol consumption. This theory is that alcohol in large quantities irritates the stomach lining, causing a condition called gastritis. Gastritis, which is inflammation of the stomach lining, is also caused by H. pylori. This leads some experts to believe that alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing an ulcer.
Another possible reason for the strong correlation between ulcers and alcohol could be the inability of those suffering from alcohol addiction to follow the advice of doctors to stop drinking. When someone receives an ulcer diagnosis, they are given a long list of foods, drinks, and behaviors to eliminate. Alcohol is at the top of that list. So, while alcohol may not be the original culprit, if someone suffers from alcohol addiction, they may not be willing to stop drinking, which can make the ulcer worse and prevent it from healing.
Alcohol’s Impact On Stomach Ulcers
Continuing to drink alcohol after being diagnosed with an ulcer greatly reduces the chance that it will heal. Continued alcohol abuse with an ulcer can also lead to a more dangerous and potentially life-threatening situation.
When exacerbated by alcohol, ulcers can create severe problems such as internal bleeding and the formation of holes in the stomach wall. If this happens, food and digestive fluids could leak into your abdominal cavity and cause a fatal infection called Peritonitis.
Heavy drinking can also cause cirrhosis of the liver, a condition that is tied to a higher frequency of stomach ulcers.
Symptoms Of Stomach Ulcers
There are times when someone does not realize they have an ulcer until severe damage is already done. However, other individuals may experience mild to moderate symptoms before an ulcer becomes severe.
Common symptoms of a stomach ulcer may include:
- discomfort between meals
- discomfort when eating or drinking
- stomach pain that wakes you up at night
- feeling full fast
- burning or dull pain in the stomach
If the ulcer becomes torn, it can cause more severe symptoms, including:
- vomiting blood
- unexpected weight loss
- blood in the stool
- back pain
What To Do If You Think You May Have An Ulcer
If you believe you have a stomach ulcer, you should make an appointment with either a primary care doctor or gastrointestinal specialist. The medical professional will ask a series of questions and perform a physical exam.
You may then need to undergo tests that may include an endoscopy; blood, stool, or breath testing to look for H. pylori bacteria; or X-rays after swallowing a solution that coats your GI tract to make ulcers more visible (barium swallow).
Treatment Options For A Stomach Ulcer
The best treatment for ulcers is to eliminate the cause. If the reason is alcohol, this could create a problem for someone suffering from alcohol abuse or addiction. Many people addicted to alcohol are unable to stop drinking on their own. If a person continues to drink after an ulcer diagnosis, it could lead to a serious and potentially life-threatening stomach problem. Seeking treatment for addiction is the best way to overcome alcohol addiction and allow the ulcer and any other medical conditions to heal.
In addition to avoiding the cause and other trigger foods and behaviors, ulcers may also be treated with antibiotics, acid-blocking and healing medications, acid blockers, and antacids.
Other Ways In Which Alcohol Is Harmful To The Stomach
The stomach where alcohol goes to be absorbed into the bloodstream; therefore, it can interfere with the function of all parts of the gastrointestinal tract. We already touched on how large amounts of alcohol can contribute to potentially dangerous stomach issues such as gastritis and ulcers, but doctors say these are only two potential problems.
Other GI issues related to alcohol abuse may include:
- acid reflux (heartburn)
- worsening of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- lesions in the stomach or small intestine
- esophageal or stomach cancer
- pancreatic disease
Seeking Treatment For Alcohol Abuse Or Addiction
Approximately 17 million adults have an alcohol use disorder, and one in 10 children live in a home with a parent who suffers from a drinking problem. Identifying and confronting that there is a problem can be a terrifying process, but help is available for those who are ready to overcome their addiction. Vertava Health has several treatment facilities in various states throughout the country. Each facility offers personalized alcohol treatment plans to help individuals address and recover from an alcohol use disorder.
To learn more about the relationship between alcohol and ulcers or to get more information on our treatment programs, contact an Vertava Health’ treatment specialist today.