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Self-Experiment: No Alcohol for 45 Days and Counting

I’ve always had gut issues – IBS and related challenges. In fact, the diarrhea, bloating, gut pain, gas, and the assorted other embarrassing IBS symptoms that make life truly difficult are what led me to this lifestyle. Getting rid of grains [1] at age 47 was life-changing, and even as gluten deniers are becoming more vocal [2] I will adamantly stand by that shift as one of the most important Primal behaviors anyone can adopt. I went from waking up everyday in pain most of my life, having to be continuously aware that an episode might occur at any time, and planning my daily excursions away from home based on where I knew there might be a (satisfactory) public bathroom, to feeling freedom from that cramping and pain, and being able to travel without trepidation. Adding probiotics like Primal Flora [3] helped “regulate” me even more.

But even up to a few months ago I still would notice the occasional gut issues arising once in a while, mostly just in the morning, and mostly fully resolved after going to the bathroom a few times. So, as comfortable as I felt 98% of the time, I still wondered why that would happen at all, if in fact I had done everything I needed to do to fully “heal” my gut, or to at least unburden myself from any further severe gut pains.

For a while, I thought it might be lingering stress that was causing these irregular bouts of intestinal distress. I have often shared here how I don’t think I handle stress that well (even though I know a ton about the deleterious effects of stress – maybe I worry too much about worrying [4]). It’s often said that people carry their stress in their gut, so that made sense to me on some level. And since research shows that psychological stress has directly deleterious effects on the gut itself [5], there was scientific plausibility. One of the reasons I decided to drink a glass or two of wine each night was to wind down after a stressful day. And that seemed to work very well for me. I came to cherish that end of the day routine, the pop of a cork, the click of the glasses, the quiet hour or two spent with Carrie winding down the day and sipping together. I swear I could feel the stress leaving my body.

My justification for drinking what amounts to a poison was that maybe the stress-reducing effects of wine outweigh the negative consequences of ethanol for some people. I assumed it was the case for me. But then there was always that little voice asking if I’d done everything to address this lingering gut issue, and maybe there was a connection between ethanol and gut health [6].

So I decided to look.

Obviously, a binge is bad. Recent research shows that it’s bad for our guts. Acute bouts of moderate-to-high dose ethanol administration [7] (4-5 drinks in a short period of time, or whatever it took to raise subjects’ blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 in an hour) increase intestinal permeability and allow endotoxins to slip into the bloodstream to causes systemic inflammation. (Of course, there’s no mention of food intake. If the subjects drank vodka on an empty stomach, the results may not be applicable to someone having four glasses of wine with their meal. Alcohol absorption and toxicity increase rapidly on an empty stomach, and I’m not drinking like that. I take my wine with my meal, or after.)

But what if even moderate alcohol consumption – the “healthy” way that I’ve been doing for years – could affect the gut negatively?

Well…

There’s physiological precedent. Ethanol directly increases permeability in epithelial cells [8]. So when you drink a glass of wine (or scotch, or vodka) and expose your gut to ethanol, tight junction leakiness increases. Plus, just like our livers metabolize alcohol into the extremely toxic acetaldehyde, gut bacteria themselves metabolize alcohol into acetaldehyde [9]. This can also cause tight junctions to grow more leaky.

There’s clinical precedent. Moderate wine consumption (1-3 glasses a day) caused relapse and increased leaky gut [10] in patients with inactive inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). That wasn’t me – I “just” had IBS – but it’s relevant because a small amount of wine consumed regularly was enough to hamper recovery.

Moderate (1 drink per day for women, 2 for men) is also associated [11] with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, a common cause of gastrointestinal issues like bloating, gas, pain, diarrhea, and constipation. Meanwhile, another study [12] out of Spain found that moderate red wine drinking led to increased levels of beneficial gut bacteria. It seems contradictory, but red wine contains polyphenols which can act as prebiotics [13] for gut flora, whereas the first study failed to distinguish between different types of alcohol. “Alcohol” could have been a shot of gin, a can of PBR, or a thimble of moonshine.

There was evidence that alcohol could have negative effects on the gut, albeit in other people. It was time to experiment on myself.

So I dropped alcohol entirely. No wine at night, even after a stressful day. That was 45 days ago. I’ve only had a couple glasses of wine here and there as challenges to test my progress and see what’s changed.

What have I noticed?

I have a theory that once we clean up our act by going Primal [14], once we’ve gotten great results [15] by sticking to the plan, we then sometimes try to “see what we can get away with” in terms of reintroducing non-Primal fare. This is totally normal, and I do it too. In my case, I know that I don’t store fat easily, so I can get away with eating more safe starches [16] or fruit than most people. I generally don’t do that, but I know I could anytime I wanted. On the other hand, I know that anything with gluten [2] will rear its ugly head if I do too much. I know where the line is (say, two small bites of fresh sourdough bread slathered in butter on a restaurant plate, but not four) and yet I sometimes still see what I can get away with. Maybe it’s a eating a little chili with beans, some edamame at a sushi restaurant or a handful of peanuts. I know my limits.

I suspect that there was something more than hormetic [17] about my consumption of ethanol combined with whatever normal gut challenges I might allow myself on those occasions, such as a little bread here or there or an increased legume [18] intake. Rather than being an acute stressor that promoted a stronger compensatory recovery, I suspect daily wine was having an additive effect on the integrity of my gut which, over time, prevented complete recovery. This constant moderate exposure to a toxin that’s already hard on the gut made those intermittent challenges (the sourdough, the beans, a particularly stressful day or hard workout) to the gut’s integrity even more damaging.

Since I’ve been on this experiment about six weeks, I do feel as if I’ve reached a new level in gut comfort. My gut issues, although almost entirely resolved on Primal, have become nonexistent. When I challenge myself with a gut-irritant like bread, my discomfort threshold is higher. And I’m figuring out other ways to deal with end of day stress that don’t involve alcohol. Who knew that you could mimic the other aspects of the ritual [19] – relaxing with your significant other after a great meal and talking about your day – and get the same benefits without opening a bottle of Zin?

I’ve noticed other changes, too.

With two glasses of red wine at night (say, from 6-7:30 pm), I’ll fall asleep easily when it’s bedtime, but often wake up at 2 or 3 am and have a tough time going back to sleep. Without wine (or with a small single glass early) this past month and a half, I’ve generally been sleeping [20] comfortably through the night.

Now, I’m not anti-alcohol. There’s a time and a place, the good and the bad [21], and many people can enjoy it without incurring major negative effects. But I do think we in the ancestral health community tend to give it too free a free pass. We use a few cursory references about polyphenols, maybe an observational study or two on mortality and alcohol intake, and throw in the word “hormesis [17]” and leave it at that. So today, I’m suggesting that you guys give an alcohol-free trial run just to see if you notice any improvements. It’s tinkering on the margins of health, but sometimes the margins hold the most promise for the otherwise healthy.

Because until we do give it up, we won’t know. Remember how you felt about grains [22] and sugar [23] and vegetable oils [24] before you got into Primal – how you “felt fine” until you removed them and realized you had been suffering all along?

So I’m pretty sure I won’t go back to two glasses a night from here. I’ll likely do one glass a few times a week and maybe two glasses on special occasions.

Let’s hear from you guys. Have you ever given up alcohol or noticed an interaction with the integrity of your gut? Will you try a no-alcohol experiment?

Thanks for reading!