Having a few beers with friends may seem harmless, unless this causes stomach pain and discomfort. While most people are not bothered by moderate consumption, beer has the potential to irritate your stomach or perhaps trigger or worsen a preexisting condition. Keeping beer in moderation is the best strategy to avoid this discomfort, but if this pain occurs frequently, it's time to visit your doctor to make sure the problem isn't serious.
Gastritis or Peptic Ulcer
Gastritis, an inflammation and irritation of the stomach lining, causes symptoms that include abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Reactive gastritis is damage to the stomach lining commonly caused by chemicals such as drugs or excessive alcohol. Stomach or peptic ulcers can also cause stomach pain. A peptic ulcer is an open sore in the lining of the stomach, typically caused by infection with a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori, or by overuse of aspirin or other nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs. While a peptic ulcer is not caused by alcohol, consuming excessive alcoholic beverages including beer can interfere with ulcer healing or worsen existing stomach damage.
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Acid reflux or heartburn occurs when some of the acidic contents of the stomach escape upward into the esophagus and damage its lining -- leading to a painful, burning sensation. While the pain is typically centered behind the breastbone, it could be perceived as stomach pain. Beer and other alcoholic beverages have the potential to aggravate acid reflux. Beer's carbonation could lead to bloating and belching, which makes it more likely for stomach acid to travel up into the esophagus -- causing irritation and pain. Alcohol, as well as the maleic and succinic acid found in beer, increase stomach acid secretion, according to a study published in the March 1999 issue of "The Journal of Clinical Investigation," and this too can aggravate acid reflux. In addition, too much alcohol slows down stomach emptying, making regurgitation of stomach contents more likely.
Liver Disease or Pancreatitis
If you are experiencing abdominal pain related to drinking beer or other alcoholic beverages, this pain could be an indication of damage to abdominal organs other than the stomach. Heavy alcohol consumption damages the liver, the organ charged with detoxifying the alcohol from your body. One of the early symptoms of alcohol-related liver disease is abdominal pain. The pancreas is another organ that can be damaged by heavy drinking. This organ produces digestive enzymes and also insulin, which regulates your blood glucose levels. Chronic heavy drinking or acute binge drinking can cause pancreatitis, a potentially life-threatening inflammation of the pancreas, with symptoms including abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and fever.
If beer is causing you to have mild or occasional abdominal pain, curtailing your consumption is best. If even small amounts bother you, either avoid beer or talk to your doctor about strategies to counter the discomfort. Acid-blocking medications or anti-gas medications may help, and your doctor may have additional advice to reduce your symptoms. However, if your pain is severe or occurs regularly, consult your doctor for a thorough evaluation. Excessive alcohol intake can lead to severe medical consequences, including liver disease, pancreatitis and certain forms of cancer. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience severe abdominal pain, severe vomiting or diarrhea, difficulty swallowing or unexpected and significant weight loss.
Reviewed by: Kay Peck, MPH, RD
- Israel Medical Association Journal: Alcohol Consumption and the Gastrointestinal Tract
- Archives of Internal Medicine: Are Lifestyle Measures Effective in Patients With Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease? An Evidence-Based Approach
- Alcohol Health and Research World: Alcohol’s Role in Gastrointestinal Tract Disorders
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Erosive Gastritis
- U.S. National Library of Medicine Clinical Guides: Alcohol-Related Pancreatitis
- National Institute of Health: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Gastritis
- The Journal of Clinical Investigation: Maleic Acid and Succinic Acid in Fermented Alcoholic Beverages Are the Stimulants of Gastric Acid Secretion
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.