Why Does Alcohol Cause Headaches, Diarrhea, Hypoglycemia, & Cancer?

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug in the United States as a result of its use being legal for individuals over the age of 21; its role in social, business, and private functions; and its central nervous system depressant effects. Even mild to moderate use of alcohol can result in issues with health and numerous side effects.

The World Health Organization reported that in 2014, 5.1 percent of the total worldwide burden of disease and injury was associated with alcohol use.

Alcohol and Headaches

According to the National Headache Foundation, ethanol (the psychoactive ingredient in alcoholic beverages) can produce headaches in individuals through several different mechanisms.

  • Ethanol is a vasodilator, which means that it expands the arteries and veins in the body, including in the brain and skull. This effect can lead to headache in some individuals.
  • Ethanol is a natural diuretic. Those who drink moderate to large amounts of ethanol are likely to excrete significant amounts of minerals, vitamins, sodium, and other substances through their urine and perspiration. This results in issues with hydration, which can be extreme in some cases. The chemical imbalance is associated with dehydration and can often lead to headache. Headaches associated with dehydration are often experienced during hangovers after an individual has stopped drinking alcohol.
  • In addition to ethanol many alcoholic beverages also contain other chemicals or substances referred to as congeners. These substances add different flavors to the beverage to make it different from other alcoholic beverages, as ethanol itself has no smell or taste. Congeners can exert a variety of effects on different individuals, including inducing hangovers and headaches. Other chemicals, such as tyramine and histamine, found in different alcoholic beverages may also trigger headaches in some individuals.
  • Those susceptible to various types of headache disorders, such as migraine headaches, are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than other individuals. Nearly a third of individuals with migraine headaches report that alcohol use triggers their migraines.

Alcohol and Diarrhea

Alcohol use may trigger diarrhea in some individuals. According to medical sources:

  • Ethanol often irritates the gastrointestinal tract and produces inflammation of the tract. This can lead to diarrhea.
  • Alcohol use interferes with the normal digestive process, leading to diarrhea after drinking.
  • Alcohol use often causes the stomach to produce more gastric acid, increasing inflammation and irritation. Most often, beer and wine produce this effect, and this can produce diarrhea.
  • Alcohol use interferes with the large intestine’s ability to absorb water, which results in stool becoming runny. This can lead to diarrhea.
  • Alcohol use also speeds up the passage of substances through the large intestine, which can result in an individual experiencing diarrhea.

Certain conditions may increase the risk of having diarrhea as a result of using alcohol.

  • Chronic use of alcohol can lead to damage to the gastrointestinal tract, and this can result in chronic issues with diarrhea.
  • Binge drinking enhances all of the aforementioned described effects and can result in diarrhea occurring more often after alcohol binges.
  • Individuals with irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, or other gastrointestinal issues are more likely to suffer issues with diarrhea when they use alcohol.
  • Individuals who have certain food allergies or food intolerances (e.g., issues with wheat, gluten, yeast, etc.) are more likely to have diarrhea as a result of alcohol use.

Alcohol and Hypoglycemia

Hand holding a glass of alcohol next to empty alcohol bottle Alcohol use may raise the risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Alcohol affects the functioning of the liver, which affects levels of glucose. The liver plays an important part in blood glucose regulation and stores glucose as glycogen, which it can convert to glucose and release into the bloodstream. When individuals drink alcohol, the liver suspends its other functions to metabolize the alcohol in the system and rid the body of the alcohol. This inhibits the liver’s ability to release glucose into the bloodstream and can result in decreased glucose levels in an individual’s blood. This decreased glucose level can continue for several hours after one has stopped drinking alcohol, as the liver can only metabolize a specific amount of alcohol per hour.

Individuals who take insulin for diabetes can develop serious issues with their glucose levels if they drink alcohol and do not monitor their blood glucose levels.

Alcohol and Cancer

It is a mistaken assumption to assume that alcohol use directly causes cancer in the majority of cases, as the evidence regarding the relationship of alcohol use and cancers suggests that alcohol use increases the risk that individuals may develop certain types of cancer. A risk factor is some type of condition that when present can lead to an increased probability that some disease or disorder may occur. Its presence neither guarantees that one will or will not develop the disease or disorder, but simply increases the probability that the disorder will develop.

According to an article published in American Journal of Public Health in 2013, between 3.2 percent and 3.7 percent of all cases of cancer were directly attributable to alcohol use. However, the number of cases of diagnosed cancer where alcohol use was a contributing factor is most likely far larger and cannot be reliably estimated.

Research has determined that even mild to moderate use of alcohol may be associated with an increased risk for numerous types of cancers. Exactly how alcohol contributes to this increased risk is not understood; however, according to the American Cancer Society:

  • Chronic use of alcohol is associated with an increased risk of getting liver cancer. Long-term use of alcohol leads to liver damage, scarring, and inflammation of the liver that most likely increases the risk for the development of cancer.
  • Increased risk of getting oral cancers, such as throat cancer, cancer of the mouth, esophageal cancer, and cancer of the larynx, is linked to alcohol use. Individuals who smoke tobacco products and drink alcohol increase the risk of getting these types of cancers greatly.
  • The risk of getting stomach cancer or other gastrointestinal cancers is significantly increased with the use of alcohol.
  • Breast cancer risk is significantly increased even by mild alcohol use.
  • Risk of colon and rectal cancer is increased with alcohol use. The risk is higher for men than women, but both genders increase the risk of getting these cancers with alcohol use.
  • The type of alcohol that one uses has little bearing on the increased risk of getting cancer. The more alcohol one drinks, the more the risk increases, whether one drinks beer, wine, or liquor. Research has demonstrated that it is the ethanol that is directly associated with the increased risks for cancer and not other products in alcoholic beverages.

It is not well understood how the use of alcohol increases the risk for the development of cancer, but there might be several different associations.

  • Alcohol use results in damage to tissues and also reduces the ability of the body to repair itself. This may increase the risk of getting cancer.
  • Helpful bacteria are killed by alcohol use, and this may lead to the increased risk of getting oral cancers and gastrointestinal cancers.
  • Alcohol use interferes with the absorption of important vitamins and nutrients, which may increase the risk for the development of cancer and other diseases.
  • Alcohol use may inhibit or alter DNA in an individual’s system that could result in an increased risk for the development of cancer cells.
  • When alcohol is metabolized, one of the natural steps in the process is the liver breaking it down to acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is toxic, and it is also recognized as a possible carcinogen. This can lead to the increased risk of cancer.
  • Alcohol use may damage tissues by the generation of reactive oxygen species, which are reactive molecules that contain oxygen and damage DNA and other substances in the body, such as protein structures, via the process of oxidation.
  • Chronic use of alcohol is associated with other conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc., which also increase the risk that one will develop certain types of cancers.

Although some studies have reported that low to moderate use of alcohol can decrease the risk of certain types of diseases, such as stroke or heart attack, both the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association do not suggest that individuals excuse their use of alcohol or begin drinking alcohol in an attempt to prevent certain diseases.

Hands holding a small heart-shaped balloon

First of all, research on the protective effects of alcohol use are mixed. They indicate that it is not the ethanol but other substances in beverages like red wine that may have protective effects. In addition, research shows that sound dietary habits and proper exercise and rest have far more beneficial effects than the use of alcohol.

If you or someone you love is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, contact us today at . We offer comprehensive alcohol rehab programs in New Jersey at Sunrise House Treatment Center. If you are not in New Jersey, we can still help you at one of our many facilities across the United States.

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