Crohn’s disease is a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). This means exactly what it sounds like: a condition that causes inflammation in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Cue big digestive ouchies.
For some people, this means cutting down on or avoiding alcohol — but is that *really* a thing?
If you’re living with Crohn’s and want to know how to get your buzz on without inflaming the ol’ bowels, we’ve got your back. Crohn’s doesn’t have to be the party pooper it’s cracked up to be. Let us walk you through the ins and outs of booze and Crohn’s.
Various triggers can cause Crohn’s flare-ups. Crohn’s is a chronic condition, meaning it’s with you for life. Since your digestive tract is ground zero for Crohn’s, living with this condition means careful management of your diet is essential. That includes managing your alcohol consumption.
Alcohol can affect Crohn’s symptoms the same way it affects pretty much everything else body-related. Those who find that alcohol triggers their flares might notice that consuming too much (or any) alcohol can cause problems or make existing symptoms worse.
Even small amounts of alcohol might set off flares in some people, while others might find that they can drink as much as they like without seeing Crohn’s symptoms.
People might also react differently to different tipples — one person might not have the faintest whiff of a flare-up if they drink vodka but may spend hours doubled over in pain after a beer. For the next person, it may be the opposite.
Well, the research on this is a little thin. Given how much triggers vary from person to person, there’s not enough hard science out there to make any firm conclusions. It’s pretty heckin’ hard to research, TBH.
In a small 2011 study, moderate red wine consumption reduced signs of bowel inflammation in a few folks with Crohn’s. This is just one study, though, and the key phrase is “a few folks” — the study included only 21 people. Red wine might still cause your GI tract to go haywire if it’s one of your triggers.
A 2018 review of 12 studies found that alcohol worsens symptoms in folks with all types of IBD, including ulcerative colitis (the slightly less famous cousin of Crohn’s). Another 2018 study found similar effects, also suggesting that alcohol increased infection risk in people with IBD.
Ultimately, if you find that your GI symptoms start to show up after you’ve knocked back a Bud, that might be the most accurate research you need for your own situation.
The best way to truly figure out whether alcohol is one of your Crohn’s triggers is to cut it out of your diet for a while and then reintroduce it in small doses to see how it affects your GI system. You really are the only study participant who matters when it comes to the lottery of your Crohn’s flare-ups.
For some folks, nothing. For others, a debilitating flare-up.
If you’ve lived with Crohn’s for a while, you’ve likely identified a few flare-up triggers. Alcohol might be one of them. Flare-ups can cause symptoms such as:
- rectal bleeding
- going from “I don’t need to go” straight to “If I don’t go now, we’ve all got a problem” in 30 seconds
- cramps and pains in your abdomen (or your throat, if that’s where your Crohn’s hits you hardest)
- constipation or a feeling like you’ve still got a little bit of stool left to give even though you’re empty
- loss of appetite
Some folks also experience:
- painful joints
- a rash around or in the mouth
- appetite and weight loss
You might not experience all of these, though. Just as triggers can be completely different between two people with Crohn’s, so can flare-up symptoms. Thanks, Crohn’s.
In the short term, a 2010 study in 129 people with Crohn’s found that moderate and higher levels of alcohol consumption could increase the risk of flare-ups. If your Crohn’s is severe, even a little alcohol could kick-start a combination of the above symptoms.
Flare-ups aren’t the only Crohn’s complication, though. You might live with any one (or several) of Crohn’s flare-up symptoms long-term (which is why managed diets are so important with Crohn’s and other forms of IBD). Heavy boozing can come with a risk of making those long-term symptoms worse.
Some possible long-term complications are:
- kidney stones
- anal fissures
- rare liver complications like primary sclerosing cholangitis and cirrhosis
Speak with a healthcare professional if you’re concerned about whether alcohol is likely to have these effects.
If you drink one particular type of alcohol and it doesn’t cause flare-ups, then guess what? That one is safe for you.
A study from 2007 that involved 32 people (20 of whom had Crohn’s) examined the effects of these bevvies:
- white wine
- red wine
- Elephant beer (a particular brand of beer — for humans, not elephants, although they never forget a night out)
- Smirnoff Ice (a flavored malt beverage)
- pure alcohol
Out of the above booze varieties, the vodka and beer caused abdominal pain in a significant number of peeps with Crohn’s. The authors attributed this to the higher sugar concentrations (which, as we’ve seen, can trigger Crohn’s flare-ups).
Ultimately, this study is pretty old, and a sample of 20 people is teeny-tiny. Another 2011 study looked at 21 participants with Crohn’s who drank wine during a remission period (a flare-up-free time). The researchers found that wine could make folks’ guts leakier, which might feed into future flare-ups.
But two small studies are hardly an indicator that everyone with Crohn’s will react the same way. If your fave booze is causing GI problems, try switching to another. If you don’t experience any symptoms after the switch, then that type of alcohol was the Crohn’s troublemaker.
And if the next type also triggers flare-ups, maybe the trigger is alcohol in general. Living with Crohn’s has a painful learning curve. But once you understand your body’s relationship with triggers, small lifestyle adjustments can help you stay in remission longer.
Your situation will depend on your triggers and how your flare-ups present themselves. But first off, it’s crucial to listen to your doc’s advice and take any medication as prescribed. This can help reduce your symptoms and the risk of potentially serious complications.
To make those flare-ups feel less sh*tty, here are a few options you can try:
- taking over-the-counter pain relievers (like ibuprofen and acetaminophen)
- using a heated pad to reduce pain in your belly
- using antibacterial wet wipes on your butt to reduce your risk of infection and prevent irritation
- taking antidiarrheal meds to, well, put a pause on diarrhea
- taking a warm salt or sitz bath if your butt hurts due to an anal fistula or fissure
- using a medicinal mouthwash to manage sores
- using perianal cleaning products when you shower (to reduce the risk of infection)
- engaging in regular self-care, including exercising, getting enough sleep, and giving yourself time to de-stress
To recap, Crohn’s disease is a form of IBD, a chronic digestive condition. Inflammation of the bowels is its main swag, but that’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Crohn’s flare-ups — periods of sudden onset or worsening of symptoms — have a variety of triggers, including some foods.
The science isn’t definitive, but the anecdotal evidence from people living with Crohn’s says alcohol is a likely trigger.
If particular types of alcohol — or alcohol in general — set off flare-ups, it might be time to either change your tipple of choice or skip the booze altogether. It’s best to listen to your body and keep track of what might be triggering your bouts of Crohn’s symptoms. The less often you have to deal with that sh*t, the better.
Research suggests that it’s best to avoid beer, sugary drinks, and possibly wine.
And always talk with your doc if you’re unsure how your Crohn’s medication may react to a bit of booze in the tank.