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The Worst Side Effect of Drinking Alcohol, Says Dietitian

It's more than just a hangover you have to worry about, experts say.
FACT CHECKED BY Olivia Tarantino

Whether you enjoy a glass of wine on occasion or mark the start of the weekend with a few cocktails, alcohol is a frequent component of countless meals, celebrations, and social gatherings.

In fact, 54.9% of U.S. adults surveyed by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2019 admitted to consuming alcohol within the past month.

While moderate red wine consumption has long been linked to cardiovascular benefits, and many people use alcohol as a means of aiding relaxation, alcohol consumption may also have serious risks for your health and wellbeing.

RELATED: Here's What Happens To Your Body If You Drink Alcohol Every Day

According to Alicia Galvin, MEd, RD, LD, IFNCP, resident dietitian for Sovereign Laboratories, alcohol may be a contributor to serious gastrointestinal health issues.

"Alcohol can cause acid reflux," says Galvin. "Alcohol relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, the band of muscles between the esophagus and stomach. When this happens, acid from the stomach can more easily come up into the esophagus and cause occasional heartburn."

If you drink regularly, these bouts of heartburn may become a more consistent issue—and one that may increase your risk of cancer.

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"People with GERD have a slightly higher risk of getting adenocarcinoma of the esophagus. This risk seems to be higher in people who have more frequent symptoms," the American Cancer Society reports.

Reflux that is left untreated for a prolonged period of time may lead to the development of Barrett's esophagus, a condition that may increase cancer risk over time. While the vast majority of people who develop Barrett's esophagus will not develop cancer, "People with Barrett's esophagus are at a much higher risk than people without this condition to develop adenocarcinoma of the esophagus," according to the American Cancer Society. Over time, Barrett's esophagus may also increase your risk of dysplasia, a form of cellular abnormality, which is linked to an increased risk of cancer, as well.

RELATED: 41 Ways Alcohol Ruins Your Health

According to a 2021 study published in the journal Cancer, among a group of 490,605 adults who took part in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, acid reflux was associated with double the risk of developing either esophageal and laryngeal squamous cell carcinomas.

Galvin notes that acid reflux isn't the only gastrointestinal ailment that alcohol may play a part in causing, however. "Alcohol inhibits the absorption of nutrients in the small intestine and increases the transport of toxins across the intestinal walls. This may contribute to the development of alcohol-related effects of the liver and other organs," Galvin says, adding that alcohol consumption may also impair intestinal muscle movement, contributing to diarrhea, and may promote the growth of gram-negative bacteria, which can increase the permeability of the intestinal lining.

If you do choose to drink, do so in moderation, and talk to your doctor if you find yourself experiencing acid reflux or other gastrointestinal symptoms.

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Sarah Crow
Sarah Crow is a senior editor at Eat This, Not That!, where she focuses on celebrity news and health coverage. Read more