Christmas Drinking & Leaky Gut

Joanna Scott-Lutyens BA (Hons) DipION

A recent study1 published in the journal Biological Psychology has found a link between gut wall health integrity, and the problem of alcohol dependence. Could taking probiotics to improve the integrity of the gut therefore help with reducing your cravings?

Evidence shows that alcohol dependence can lead to leaky gut syndrome which in turn means that toxic particles are released out of the gut into the blood stream, causing an inflammatory response. Although inflammation is a natural, healthy response which is protective to the body, when it becomes chronic or systemic it can be damaging. Chronic or systemic inflammation is linked to many disorders and illnesses including an involvement in psychiatric disorders such as depression and alcohol dependence.

glass of wine

Alcohol is linked to inflammation

Does this mean, however, that overindulging in your favourite alcoholic tipple at Christmas is going to cause future alcohol cravings? Not necessarily, although it is not clear from the study as to for how long and how much alcohol you need to drink to lead to the inflammatory cascade.

Inflammation and leaky gut

Although inflammation has long been understood, the origins of it have not. Research now suggests that a gut wall that lacks integrity, is ‘leaky’, allows toxins to escape the bowel into the blood stream causing an immune response which in turn then contribute to the inflammatory process. For those who are unsure about ‘leaky gut’ or ‘intestinal impermeability’, this is a situation where the gut wall cells which are usually closely fitted adjacent to one another, have started to form gaps in between the cells. These gaps become large enough to allow molecules that usually stay within the gut, to move through into the blood stream. The causes of this situation are not entirely known although excessive consumption of grains, sugar, NSAIDS, antibiotics and dysbiosis are among some discussed.

The study

Now, researchers at Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, led by senior authors Dr. Philippe de Timary and Dr. Peter Stärkel have run a study which establishes a link "between alcohol consumption, craving and activation of pro-inflammatory cytokines which contribute to a systemic inflammatory status in alcohol-dependent patients".

This study recruited 63 alcohol-dependent patients who took tests both before and after alcohol detoxification. This data was then compared with data from 14 non drinking volunteers. The activation of various intracellular signalling pathways by gut-derived bacterial products was analyzed. The researchers found that when exposed to alcohol, endotoxins were released across the gut wall. These endotoxins (lipopolysaccharides and peptidoglycans) resulted in an increase in activated inflammatory pathways in blood mononuclear cells. These were positively correlated with alcohol consumption and alcohol-craving scores. Short-term alcohol withdrawal was associated with the recovery of lipopolysaccharide-dependent receptors but not peptidoglycan-dependent receptors. In short, prior to detoxification there was a correlation between inflammation and both alcohol consumption as well as alcohol craving.

"This establishes a new concept where events having their origin at peripheral sites in the body could modify central brain mechanisms that ultimately influence behaviour in alcohol dependence," Stärkel explained.


Leeks are excellent for supporting your gut bacteria and therefore gut integrity

How do we improve gut integrity?

There are many methods of healing gut integrity or ‘leaky gut’. Recommendations include reducing your grain and dairy intake as these can aggravate an already impaired gut lining, assessment of any parasites or pathogenic bacteria present and trying to eliminate these, reduction of use of NSAIDS and antibiotics where possible. Higher intake of nutritious foods and sometimes supplementation can help and one of the main methods of repair is the use of probiotics to rebalance the gut bacteria. This study also therefore suggests that reducing alcohol intake can greatly improve gut integrity and reduce the inflammation response.

Stärkel agreed, adding, "The study does not only open new areas for research but also identifies new targets for developing novel treatment and management approaches for alcohol dependence. Targeting the gut-brain axis either at the level of the gut itself or at the level of effector cells such as blood mononuclear cells in order to influence behaviour could become a potential option in the care of alcohol-dependent patients."

So, are we going to end up with alcohol cravings if we drink at Christmas? Not necessarily. However it is advisable to drink in moderation and pop your probiotic. However, if you do suffer from alcohol cravings, depression and other inflammation caused disorders, looking after your gut integrity could give you much relief.

Healthcare practitioners might wish to find out more about how gut bacteria can influence your brain function.


  1. Leclercq S, De Saeger C, Delzenne N, de Timary P, Stärkel P. Role of inflammatory pathways, blood mononuclear cells, and gut-derived bacterial products in alcohol dependence. Biol Psychiatry. 2014 Nov 1;76(9):725-33