Alcohol and the small intestine

Scand J Gastroenterol. 1991 Jan;26(1):3-15. doi: 10.3109/00365529108996478.


Several alterations of the small-intestinal morphology and function have been documented after alcohol ingestion. There are morphologic changes macroscopically and microscopically after acute alcohol administration in the proximal part of the small intestine, which are quickly reversible. There are no macroscopic changes and, in most patients, very discrete light microscopic changes in the small intestine after chronic alcohol ingestion. The ultrastructural changes are, however, profound, as seen by both transmission and scanning electron microscopy. The permeability is probably increased, permitting entrance of possible noxious agents, which may explain some of the extraintestinal tissue damage observed in chronic alcoholism. The transit is increased, at least after acute alcohol administration, perhaps contributing to the diarrhea commonly seen after heavy drinking. Several of the enzymes located in the brush border are affected; lactase activity can be depressed and perhaps result in a transient milk intolerance in predisposed individuals. The activity of GGT is increased and may partly account for the GGT elevation in serum after heavy drinking. Other enzymes, such as Na(+)-K(+)-ATPase, can be inhibited and result in a decreased absorption of substances that require active, energy-dependent transport mechanisms. The secretion of water and electrolytes may be increased (an effect on cAMP?). The absorption of several nutrients, vitamins, and other elements is disturbed. The bacterial flora is increased and changed, which may give rise to symptoms and also increase the production of acetaldehyde by bacterial metabolism of ethanol. Acetaldehyde is more toxic than ethanol, and an increased concentration of acetaldehyde can possibly accentuate the damage to the liver and other organs. The bacterial overgrowth can possibly cause endotoxinemia. Although studies on alcohol-related intestinal alterations have been relatively sparse, the acute and chronic effects of alcohol thus seem to be considerable. From available results it is, however, difficult to draw any definite conclusions about the clinical importance of many of the findings. Future research will need to study the relationship between, for example, the chronic morphologic changes, the absorptive dysfunction, and permeability alterations, on the one hand, and the gastrointestinal symptoms, the extraintestinal damage, and various deficiencies, on the other hand.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage
  • Ethanol / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Absorption / drug effects
  • Intestinal Mucosa / metabolism
  • Intestine, Small / drug effects*
  • Intestine, Small / pathology
  • Intestine, Small / physiology


  • Ethanol