A balanced diet, exercise, and stress management are positive lifestyle choices for a healthy digestive system. Tobacco, alcohol, and medications on the other hand, can cause havoc with our digestion by causing acid reflux, GERD, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.
Smoking can substantially increase our risk for acid reflux in three ways: it inhibits the production of saliva, triggers the production of stomach acids, and slows the stomach from emptying.
Saliva reduces the negative effects of acid reflux by neutralizing stomach juices. It also helps the muscles along the esophagus keep stomach acid where it belongs. When we smoke, the production of saliva is significantly depreciated, greatly increasing our risk for heartburn.
The nicotine in cigarettes has also been said to increase the production of stomach acids. The more acid that is produced, the greater chance it will find its way up into the esophagus. If acid reflux is already a problem, an increase in stomach juices only makes matters worse.
With a healthy digestive system, food leaves our stomach at just the right rate – slow enough for nutrients to be absorbed and fast enough that we don’t become bloated or constipated. Studies show that smoking significantly slows down the rate at which our stomachs are emptied.
Alcohol is attributed to a host of digestive issues, including acid reflux and constipation. Alcohol may not only alter our behavior that promotes healthy digestion but it causes physical changes to our digestive systems.
Let’s first look at alcohol and acid reflux. Acid reflux occurs when the set of muscles (called the sphincter) that surround the passage way from the stomach to the esophagus is weakened. A healthy sphincter opens to let food down into the stomach and then closes again to prevent stomach juices from heading back up.
Alcohol relaxes the sphincter so it cannot do this job effectively. To make acid reflux matters worse, alcohol can also inflame the stomach making it all too easy for the stomach acids to escape.
Another very common digestive disorder associated with drinking alcohol is constipation. Alcohol slows down our digestive system. The muscles in the large intestine (the colon) can go weak with too much alcohol. When our system slows down like this, it holds onto our food much longer than it should, often resulting in constipation.
Alcohol is a diuretic and promotes the loss of electrolytes (potassium and sodium) that are essential in keeping the moisture in our stool. Dry stool does not get passed easily and the result again is constipation.
While under the influence of alcohol, it turns off the urge “to go”. Our body eventually stops reminding us and we end up constipated.
Both over-the-counter and prescription medications can cause havoc on our digestive system.
Over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin and ibuprofen (sometimes referred to as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) work by inhibiting the production of an enzyme that causes inflammation. This is great if we have a headache but isn’t so great for our stomach. This same enzyme also protects the lining of our stomach from stomach acids. When that protection is gone, nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea can result.
Prescription antibiotics not only destroy harmful bacteria but they can also kill our helpful digestive bacteria. When not enough of this “good bacteria” is present, sugars and cellulose are not broken down and hang around in the colon. They end up stimulating the colon lining, causing it to put out excess fluid, and causing diarrhea. To replenish the good bacteria, consider foods with added probiotics or a probiotic supplement.
The adverse digestive side effects of alcohol, smoking, and medications are in most all cases reversible. Avoid drinking alcohol, stop smoking and use medications with care for optimal digestive health.