Alcohol and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Alcohol and Irritable Bowel Syndrome
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Irritable bowel syndrome, also referred to as IBS, is a common condition that affects the large intestine. Patients often complain of abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, bloating, gas, and constipation. This condition does not result in permanent colon damage, but it causes discomfort and pain. Certain foods aggravate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, as can alcohol. The relationship between alcohol and irritable bowel syndrome typically isn’t a friendly one.


The symptoms of IBS vary greatly and are often mistaken for other medical conditions. For many patients, these symptoms are mild, but for others they can be disabling. The most common symptoms include:

  • Cramping or abdominal pain
  • Mucus in the stool
  • Feeling bloated
  • Constipation or diarrhea – sometimes patients will alternate between the two
  • Gas


The exact cause of this disorder is not known, but there are things that are thought to trigger it.

Foods such as milk and chocolate may cause diarrhea and constipation. Some vegetables and fruits and carbonated beverages may cause discomfort and bloating.

Stress can aggravate the symptoms of this condition, but it doesn’t cause it. Hormones can contribute to this condition. Women are twice as likely to suffer from this condition than men, and often find their symptoms are increased around the time of or during their menstrual periods.

Gastroenteritis also contributes to this condition.

Consuming alcohol and irritable bowel syndrome may lead to diarrhea and constipation. Some patients may also experience stomach pain and heartburn when they consume alcohol. Beer and other carbonated alcoholic drinks, such as certain mixed drinks or wine coolers, tend to be more harsh on an IBS sufferer’s symptoms, while red wine tends to cause the least symptoms, if it causes any.

Risk Factors

There are certain risk factors that make a person more vulnerable to experiencing this condition. These include being female, being young (under age 35), and having a family history of this condition.


There are no external signs of IBS, so most patients are diagnosed through a process of elimination. To help the process of elimination, the Rome criteria, a set of diagnostic criteria, has been created to help diagnose functional gastrointestinal disorders, such as IBS. This criteria states that a patient must experience certain symptoms before they can be diagnosed. The most important symptom is abdominal discomfort and pain lasting a minimum of 12 weeks, though these weeks do not have to be consecutive. Patients must also experience two of the following symptoms in addition to abdominal discomfort and pain:

  • A change in the consistency or frequency of their stool
  • Mucus in their stool
  • Urgency, straining, or feeling like the bowels are not completely empty
  • Abdominal distension or bloating

Other diagnostic tests may be done to rule out other possible conditions that can cause similar symptoms. These tests may also be ordered to look for malabsorption problems or infection. These tests include:

Flexible sigmoidoscopy: A lighted, flexible tube is inserted through the rectum to examine the sigmoid (lower part of the colon)

Computerized tomography: This imaging technique takes X-ray images of the internal organs cross-sectionally.

Blood tests: These can be beneficial in ruling out Celiac disease, which can cause many of the same symptoms.

Colonoscopy: A flexible, small tube is inserted through the rectum to examine the entire colon.

Lactose intolerance test: This test will determine whether a patient has a lactose intolerance by having them avoid lactose-containing products for several weeks. If they avoid these products and their symptoms disappear, it is likely that this was the cause and not IBS.


Treatment most often involves controlling the patient’s symptoms. Anti-diarrheal medications, biber supplements, and avoiding high-gas foods are very commonly recommended. Some prescription medications may also be beneficial. These can include:

  • Anticholinergic medications
  • Antibiotics
  • Antidepressant medications
  • Lubiprostone
  • Alosetron


Mayo Clinic. (2009). Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Retrieved on January 27, 2010 from the Mayo Clinic:

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