The SCD Diet and Alcohol: A Guide to the Effects of Alcohol on the Digestive Tract

by Steven Wright

Alcohol is a very controversial subject that has plenty of scientific studies that could be used to argue both sides until you’re blue in the face.  I’m going to try to present as much of an unbiased look into the effects of alcohol on the digestive tract as possible (I am was a beer lover after all).

Overall Health Effects

Before we can properly discuss how alcohol impacts the digestive system we need to discuss the amount of alcohol ingested.  The amount and how often you consume alcohol are by far the two biggest factors of alcohol’s effects on the human body. A quick Google search will show you that chronic alcohol abuse will result in a substantial increase in your chances of getting cirrhosis of the liver, cancer of the liver or digestive tract, diabetes, GERD, alcoholic hepatitis and the list goes on and on. Therefore, I will not be examining the problems associated with acute alcohol usage as I am going to assume anyone who is following SCD is well aware that alcohol abuse is not going to help them heal any of their digestive problems.

That being said; for this post we are going to be discussing moderate alcohol consumption. What is moderate consumption? Great question… most studies seem to define it as 1 drink for women and 2-3 drinks for men per day. A drink is then defined as roughly 4-5 ounces of wine, 12oz of beer, or 1 oz of 80 proof (40% alcohol) liquor.

Alcohol Has Benefits?

So, why drink any alcohol? There are more and more studies showing up every day hailing alcohol and its effects on your health. This summary of a study published in the British Medical Journal shows that 2 drinks a day cuts your risk of a heart attack by 25%!  This study from the South African Medical Journal makes a very compelling statement, “Epidemiological evidence suggests that moderate consumption (1-3 drinks) of alcoholic beverages, particularly red wine, is associated with an overall improvement in health, especially cardiovascular health.” It is also known that alcohol thins the blood which can help anyone at risk of atherosclerosis. So, at this point we know that chronic or acute usage of alcohol is very detrimental to our health and that there is some evidence that moderate consumption might actually be beneficial.

What Does Elaine Say?

Well, in all instances in which she does permit alcohol she always attaches the word “occasionally” with it. I interpret that to mean in moderation, as I’m sure she was well aware of what excessive drinking does to the body. According to Breaking the Vicious Cycle and Pecanbread.com the following lists are what is and is not permissible on the SCD Diet

LEGAL: Dry Wine, Gin, Rye, Scotch, Bourbon and Vodka

ILLEGAL: Beer, Sweet Wines, Sherry, Cordials, Liqueurs and Brandy

Now you might be thinking “Great, I’m home free as long as I stick to the legal list!” Well, not so fast… I feel inclined to share a few details with you before you make your final decision the next time you reach for a bottle.

Alcohol Getting Down in the GI Tract

When you drink alcohol, about 20% of the quantity is immediately absorbed through the stomach walls. The remaining alcohol in the stomach starts to break down with the help of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. The stomach contains limited amounts of alcohol dehydrogenase allowing most of the remaining alcohols to pass through where it is quickly absorbed by the upper portion of the small intestine. The digestive tract blood vessels transport the alcohol to the liver, as liver cells are the only body cells that can produce enough of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase to breakdown the alcohol quickly. Overall, alcohol is given a first class pass through the digestive system and directly to the liver. Doesn’t seem like it impacts the digestive tract too bad, right?  Let’s look a little closer.

The following points are distilled (pun intended) from my research on how even the smallest amount of alcohol affects the digestion process. See the end of this post for my sources.

  • Alcohol damages mucosa cells (special digestive cells lining your GI tract), which leads to less saliva production in the mouth, inflammation of the esophagus, and inflammation of the stomach
  • Alcohol impairs digestive motility (muscle control and contraction), which slows the movement of food through the esophagus and intestines and usually leads to diarrhea
  • Low alcohol content drinks (beer, wine) raise levels of stomach acid which can cause acid reflux and gastritis.
  • High alcohol content drinks (distilled) don’t raise stomach acid levels but they are more inflammatory to the mucosa cells leading to higher amounts of inflammation
  • Lastly, alcohol impairs the stomach acid solution by precipitating (separating) pepsin the main enzyme responsible for protein digestion, which limits the digestion process as pepsin is activated by hydrochloric acid (main component of stomach acid)

Summing It All Up

So, what are we supposed to do, abstain completely from alcohol? My answer would be “YES” if you haven’t ever been a drinker. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that shows alcohol is not helping to heal our digestive tract, therefore adding additional damage to our system by claiming scientific studies might show some possible health benefits is asinine in my opinion.

But, what if you enjoy alcohol in moderation? I think that if you stick to the list of approved types of alcohol and follow Elaine’s advice of “occasionally” (moderation) the benefit of being able to enjoy a night out with some friends or a relaxing drink after a long day during this diet is probably psychologically worth it. However, please be aware that any amount of alcohol directly affects the speed and quality of digestion, therefore it not advisable to drink before or during a meal. The breakdown of food that is consumed with or after alcohol is likely going to be incomplete and the food will stay in the intestinal tract longer, ferment and contribute to the viscous cycle we are fighting.

What is your opinion on the use of alcohol while on SCD? Do you partake in a drink here or there? I would love to hear your opinions.

This is part 1 of a 3 part series. Go to Part II to learn more about SCD Legal Wines and Part III for SCD Legal Liquor.

References:

- How Alcohol Retards Digestion

- Alcohol’s Role in Gastrointestinal Tract Disorders

- Alcohol and Gastric Acid Secretion in Humans

- Alcohol Abuse and Your Stomach

About the author

Steven Wright Steve Wright is a health engineer and author. In 2009, he reached a breaking point when IBS took over his life and the doctors didn't know how to help. Since then, he has transformed his health and started SCDLifestyle.com to help others naturally heal stomach problems. You can check out his story here and find him on Google+, Facebook or Twitter.

The Specific Carbohydrate Diet Works

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Astra Li June 24, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Thank you for this information – is Tequila an ok alcohol occasionally? Astra

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Jordan Reasoner October 14, 2011 at 9:59 am

Hi Astra – Tequila is a “grey area” on SCD, If you do drink some I would keep it to the clear Tequilas and in moderation. Check out part 3 in this series for more info.

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Angie April 28, 2012 at 1:32 pm

I am new to the scd diet… I hope to be able to drink alcohol in the future. Currently when I try to drink my skin gets blotchy and I use the bathroom about every 20 minutes for hours. It is not very fun! Any suggestions on how far along in the diet I can try alcohol again?

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Danielle May 23, 2012 at 3:43 pm

I want to note that I’ve done some research and reliably dry wines (0-1 g sugar/L) are French Bordeaux blends, specifically from the Left bank (Medoc or Graves) – they tend to be Cab Savignon dominant which are slightly less sweet than Merlot dominated blends.

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Jordan Reasoner June 2, 2012 at 3:56 am

Thanks Danielle, awesome tip!

Jordan

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Katieb May 23, 2012 at 6:22 pm

Thankfully, we do fine with our daily wine and SCD. I personally think a daily glass or two of wine is beneficial and not heavy or alcoholic drinking. In addition, as any of us know on SCD SOoOoO much else has been taken away, it’s nice to be able to enjoy at least ONE ‘vice’ in life…:)

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Jordan Reasoner June 2, 2012 at 3:56 am

Thank you for sharing that Katie, I’m so happy that you’re doing well!

Jordan

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Trish December 26, 2012 at 6:22 pm

I found this very helpful. Thank you…

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Martin December 27, 2012 at 9:04 am

I have gone a the long way from a enthusiast beer lover to abstaining from alcohol completely. While getting vast health benefits from that there are obstacles too: In society where majority practices social drinking it is not easy to stick to tea. One note on the research: At the beginning of the research of smoking health effect the initial results were also neutral or beneficial in moderation while recently the results were more conclusive. We might see similar research results with alcohol with some 50 years of delay.

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Jordan Reasoner December 27, 2012 at 11:47 am

Great points Martin. I think what we can deduce from the research is that Alcohol does impair digestion… so doing it atleast 2 hours after a meal is important. The 2nd is that research continues to pile up showing alcohol causes SIBO, so those that can’t naturally defend against a temperary increase in SIBO shouldn’t drink.

In good health,

Jordan

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kathleen January 16, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Hi there,

Ive been on the SCD now for 3 weeks! Im wondering if anyone has any insight on when i can add in a once a week couple glasses of wine?

MUCH appreciated!!

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Ad February 21, 2013 at 7:26 pm

A question,

I have trouble understanding why beer is illegal under SCD. As I understand it, the reason that beer is illegal under SCD is because of the trace amounts of maltose and isomaltose (disaccharides) left after the brewing process. However, the amount of those disaccharides left is comparable, if not much smaller in many cases, to the amount of lactose present in SCD legal aged cheeses. So my question is why are maltose and isomaltose more difficult to digest than lactose and why is beer SCD legal by this logic.

This question also draws upon my continued confusion as to why starches and disaccharides in some foods (squash and carrots) are tolerated, but others aren’t.

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Ad February 21, 2013 at 7:27 pm

I’m sorry, that should read why /isn’t/ beer SCD legal.

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Ad February 28, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Anyone have an answer for this one yet? I’ve noticed a trend of my inquiries receiving no answers on the site…

As a note, I’m not trying to decry SCD. I follow it religiously. I’m just trying to understand /why/ it works and the rationale behind the restrictions. If we don’t have an understanding of why this diet works, then it makes it that much harder to figure out what exactly is responsible for the myriad conditions that it can treat.

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Steven Wright March 5, 2013 at 6:47 pm

@Ad – There can also be gluten and other remains in beer depending on the type of ferment used. Beer is very diverse term. From the large to the microbrews it can be very hard to be sure that there isn’t added sugars and that the sugars are as low as you say they are. That being said we’ve always said this is your life, if you can drink it, you want to drink and it doesn’t affect you go for it.

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Rich February 27, 2013 at 7:20 pm

It doesn’t appear that this thread is being followed closely, but I’m hoping the author is still around, as I have one question about one statement in the article:

“Alcohol impairs digestive motility (muscle control and contraction), which slows the movement of food through the esophagus and intestines and usually leads to diarrhea”

I’m taking Immodium twice a day in order to decrease motility. I don’t understand how decreasing motility leads to diarrhea.

Wine seems to help me, maybe decreased motility is the reason.

Thanks,
Rich

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Steven Wright February 28, 2013 at 9:45 am

@Rich – decreased motility can lead to diarrhea or constipation totally depends on gut flora, infections, hormone status. If the food takes longer to get through the system it sits around and gut bugs eat it for dinner. Their by products cause diarrhea, gas, bloating and a bunch of other bad by products. Try SCD for 30 days to get off the Imodium.

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google, March 11, 2013 at 5:15 pm

I have figured out some points through your blog post post. One other point I would like to state is that there are numerous games available and which are designed specifically for toddler age youngsters. They involve pattern acknowledgement, colors, creatures, and styles. These generally focus on familiarization in lieu of memorization. This will keep children engaged without having the experience like they are studying. Thanks

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Rich March 13, 2013 at 2:36 am

Thanks for the response, Steven!

Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to this thread. Since I posted my question, I did try the SCD — but a modified version, and only for a week and a half. My problem is that I’m a vegetarian, so there’s no possible way to try the SCD from the ground up, including the intro week. So I simply made a list of the allowed non-animal foods, and stuck to those.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much change. And on top of that, I found the diet almost impossible: I was eating a lot, and was usually hungry anyway. Whether the diet would work for me or not is still an unanswered question, since I didn’t follow it exactly. My symptoms are mild enough that going back to eating meat after 20+ years as a vegetarian just to try it out with no guarantee would be a difficult decision to make. I haven’t ruled it out, but for now I’ve gone back to a “normal” diet.

In the meantime, I’ll keep reading and learning.

Thanks,
Rich

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Neil April 1, 2013 at 7:25 am

After doing some research a good pilsner converts all the maltose and isomaltose to CO2 and ethanol leaving very little or no residual sugars. Any residual sugars will monosaccharides such as glucose or fructose.

On this basis I too am struggling to understand why ‘some’ beer/lagers are not SCD legal. Especially when wine is legal and most likely contains some sugars.

The Holsten Pils advert claims that all of the sugar turns to alcohol and is a favoured drink by diabetics. There are other pilsners out there where all the sugar is converted to alcohol – although ‘sugar’ is a loose definition.

I shall try a few pilsners and let you know how they effect me. After all life is for living.

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Phloxie October 15, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Do you know how your “good pilsner” rates on a gluten-free scale? Most beer still contains some damaging amounts of gluten. There are a couple of newish brands of gluten-free beers, Estrella Damm Daura, and Omission (they have an ale and a lager) that are really tasty and proven to have <20ppm of gluten. They're actually both brewed with barley, so they taste just like real gluteny beer, but somehow they get nearly all of the gluten out. This makes them great for a gluten-free diet, however, the carbs left in this beer (and maybe your "good pilsner") might be the wrong kind for SCD. I believe long-chain/complex carbs are illegal. It's definitely worth looking into.

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Pat November 12, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Neil, have you tried any of these beers? Curious to hear what the results were.

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Sergio Rosen April 6, 2013 at 6:39 pm

I started in first 2 weeks of SCD diet because of recent stomach issues. in reading about the diet I learned that Aloe Vera is on the illegal list. In mexico it’s such a miracle plant, has controlled many peoples Acid reflux instead of taking ppi’s, this is just by ingesting 2 in. of the leaf without the thorns of course. also I wonder if Nopal is illegal as it is also an anti-inflamatory but has the same mucosa….

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Brian April 10, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Are hard firers legal?

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Mckenzie September 5, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Any opinion on if apple cider would be a better choice then others when it comes to drinking alcohol? My thoughts being that it is more SCD or natural then hard liquor? Or is it all pretty much equal?
Thanks!

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meg January 14, 2014 at 12:33 am

I live on Japan and was wondering if shochu and awamori (they’re distilled unlike nihonshuu ie sake) are SCD legal?

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Kara Terna July 25, 2014 at 4:37 am

I think hard are greater and wine are the best and vodka. Just sharing

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rollicking October 5, 2014 at 4:08 pm

I am not sure where you’re getting your info, but great topic.
I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding
more. Thanks for wonderful information I was looking for this info
for my mission.

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Ivan November 9, 2014 at 12:56 am

Hi,
Thanks for the great info.
Curious if anyone has any thoughts on my plan to use cider apple vinegar as a mixer for vodka.
Maybe the anti-bacterial properties in the vinegar will negate the potential damage from the alcohol…
I was thinking of a mixture equal parts vodka and apple cider vinegar with soda water, ice and a slice of lemon.
Ta

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