How Drugs & Alcohol Affect the Digestive System
The digestive system is composed of several organs, such as the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, liver, pancreas, and large intestine, according to the National Institutes of Health. This includes the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), which is made up of hollow organs that begin with the mouth and end at the anus. The stomach and small and large intestines are some of the hollow organs that are part of the digestive system. The pancreas, liver, and gallbladder are some of the hard organs that make up the GI tract.
The digestive system ensures that you receive the nutrients needed to maintain a healthy body. This is where the body turns these nutrients into the energy required to repair and heal itself or even to stimulate growth. Nutrients include protein, fats, carbohydrates, water, vitamin, and minerals.
The digestive organs make sure that nutrients are broken down into smaller components it can use. Chewing, mixing, and squeezing are part of this process. From there, bodily fluids, such as bile, enzymes, and stomach acid, continue to use the food you eat to provide the body with nutrients.
The body’s nerves and hormones also play a part in the digestive system’s process. Hormones let your brain know if you’re full or hungry. Nerves let your body know when it needs to expand or contract the muscles that move food along in your body.
How Drugs Affect the Digestive System
Some drugs can cause a user to develop nausea or vomiting, and different drugs have different effects on the digestive system.
- Alcohol: This drug makes it difficult to ingest necessary nutrients and may even cause anemia. Excessive use of alcohol is associated with colon and rectal cancers.
- Cocaine: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), cocaine can impair tissue in the bowels and cause pain in the abdomen.
- Opioids: These drugs can cause constipation, acid reflux issues, and pain in the abdomen.
- Hallucinogens: Some psychedelics, such as Ayahuasca, are associated with nausea or vomiting.
- Tobacco: This drug, though legal, is associated with cancers of the colon, esophagus, and stomach. It is also associated with the development of diabetes and inflammation.
- Prescription medications: A 2013 study published by Frontline Gastroenterology shows that some commonly prescribed drugs may cause damage to the GI tract.
According to a 2008 paper published in Acta Chirurgica Iugoslavica, drug abuse in general is known to cause rectal bleeding and abdominal pain that may indicate ischemic colitis. This is a condition in which blood flow to the colon (large intestine) decreases because of blocked arteries. It can cause long-term damage to the colon.
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Some short-term effects of drug abuse on the digestive system can include:
- Decreased appetite
- Poor digestion
- Inability to absorb nutrients
The degree to which this damage occurs depends on the type of drug used.
A 2008 study shows that drug smugglers may suffer damage to their digestive system. This is because some people smuggle drugs using a body cavity and often ingest these drugs in a dangerous manner in order not to get caught by authorities.
Chronic consumption of alcohol, particularly beer, has been associated with rectal cancer. Abuse of alcohol is also associated with anemia and fatigue.
Long-term use of certain drugs is associated with a variety of cancers, including cancers of the stomach, colon, rectum, and esophagus.
Is Damage to the Digestive System Reversible?
According to Psychology Today, damage to the digestive system can be reversed after a sustained period of abstinence from drugs. After a prolonged period of using drugs, some people may develop cytokines, an inflammatory molecule that not only affects the digestive system, but the brain as well. After extended abstinence from substances of abuse, these inflammatory molecules may begin to dissipate.
Some activities can help people restore their bodies a bit faster after ceasing use of drugs and/or alcohol.
- Take digestive enzymes. It is best if these are plant-based. Enzymes are known to improve digestion by breaking down protein, fats, and carbohydrates.
- Decrease inflammation. Although vitamin C and E supplements may help to decrease inflammation, people can also drink black or green teas to assist with this process.
- Take magnesium. This can alleviate constipation in people who have used opioids or prescription pills in the past.
- Take probiotics. There are supplements that are full of probiotics, but these can also be found in kimchi, kombucha, and yogurt.
Individuals should discuss these options with their doctor or healthcare provider before taking such actions.
These conditions related to the digestive system are known to be reversible if people practice abstinence.
- Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD): The National Health Service says that abstaining from alcohol is an important step in treating and possibly reversing ARLD. This is the only way to prevent a patient from dying if their liver is failing because of alcohol consumption.
- Liver damage: The use of certain drugs such as heroin, steroids, and inhalants may damage the liver. This harm can increase if these drugs are combined with alcohol or other drugs. The University of Iowa states that the liver can repair itself after 30 days if the body does not experience other complications.
- Peliosis hepatis: Use of steroids usually leads to peliosis hepatis, according to the National Institutes of Health. This is a condition in which the liver is filled with blood cysts. It can often reverse once a person stops ingesting steroids. In some cases, these cysts can be surgically removed; however, the use of steroids is known to cause hepatic tumors. This can range in seriousness depending on when they are discovered and whether they are malignant or not.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, detoxes can help the liver, but they do not produce desirable results alone. People who have a history of drug or alcohol abuse must stop using substances in order to see better health outcomes. Avoiding excess alcohol use and risky behaviors can help individuals avoid liver problems as well as damage to the rest of the GI tract.