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Ther Umsch. 2000 Apr;57(4):212-9.

[Alcohol, the gastrointestinal tract and pancreas].

[Article in German]

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  • 1Abteilung für Innere Medizin 1, Robert-Bosch-Krankenhaus, Stuttgart.


The intake of larger quantities of alcoholic beverages leads to manifold functional disturbances and organ injury in the upper gastrointestinal tract. These damaging effects of alcohol are frequently the cause of complaints, such as heart burn, symptoms of dyspepsia and diarrhoea. Examples of more pronounced organ injury which can occur even following a single episode of heavy drinking are tears in the mucosa at the junction of the esophagus and the stomach (Mallory-Weiss-lesion) and hemorrhagic erosions in the stomach and/or the duodenum which may lead to massive bleeding. In the small intestine alcohol abuse interferes with the absorption of glucose, amino acids, lipids, water, sodium and vitamins (especially thiamine and folic acid). This inhibition of absorption of nutrients may contribute to nutritional deficiencies frequently observed in alcoholics. Acute alcohol ingestion can also damage the mucosa in the upper region of the small intestine and may lead to the disruption of the tips of the villi. Chronic alcohol abuse increases markedly the prevalence of bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. The findings of human and animal studies suggest that the mucosal injury together with bacterial overgrowth favour the following sequence of events: Alcohol induced mucosal injury in the small intestine increases the permeability of the mucosa to macromolecules, such as endotoxin and/or other bacterial toxins, into the blood or lymph. This results in the release of potentially toxic cytokines and other mediators like Kupfer cells and other phagocytes. These cytokines and other mediators, in turn, exert multiple injurious effects on the microcirculation and membranes. The result is cell damage and even cell death (apoptosis, necrosis) in the liver and other organs. Chronic alcohol abuse is one of the most important risk factors for the development of cancers of the tongue, larynx, pharynx and esophagus. In many countries alcohol abuse is the most important cause for the development of chronic pancreatitis. In the initial phase the disease is frequently characterised by episodes of 'acute' pancreatitis. These episodes develop only on the basis of prolonged alcohol abuse leading to subclinical damage of the gland. The latter is found in about 20-50% of patients with chronic alcohol abuse while the clinically overt pancreatitis is observed in only 1%-3% of alcoholics. Despite numerous studies performed in animal experiments and man the pathogenesis of alcoholic pancreatitis until now has not been clarified.

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