Alcohol, Inflammation, and Chronic Illness: My Story

By Lisa Marie Basile 01/03/19

For my particular condition as well as other inflammatory chronic illnesses, alcohol can actually mess up your gut flora, which is where many diseases originate.

Woman with hand at her head, dealing with alcohol and inflammation disease
Living with a chronic illness means constantly managing your output, your pain, your relationships, your doctor appointments (or lack of healthcare). ID 107649958 © Kowniewping |

During graduate school—about seven years ago now—I was partying wildly. I was part of a theatrical show, which had me out late very often. Drinking was a sort of currency; it’s how we bonded, how we synced our feelings, how we operated. Alcohol was almost always used as a way to create our art; we believed the night was magical only if filled with wine and sparkling cava and fancy martinis. And I don’t blame us. We were young and energetic and in love with our lives.

But as someone with both serious education debt and a full-time job, it was hard to balance my copious drinking. Real life—the daytimes—were sober and slow, and my evenings were wild and loud and, yes, usually drunk. Too many mornings were impossible. Too many days I’d show up late. Too many conversations half-remembered, blurry, embarrassing.

And then my chronic illness kicked in. The official diagnosis was about a year ago, although I had been experiencing symptoms for years before that—and alcohol only ever made them worse, I’ve now realized.

Living with a Chronic Disease

I have ankylosing spondylitis (AS). It’s an inflammatory and degenerative spinal disease that causes immobility, disfigurement, and issues with my joints, eyes, stomach, and heart. Inflammation is the name of the game with this condition: my immune system attacks itself, leading to painful inflammation that, if left untreated, could prevent me from walking and moving in the future.

Before my diagnosis, “wellness” wasn’t even in my vocabulary. I didn’t sleep enough, I didn’t take care of my mental health, I didn’t stretch or work out often, I didn’t put clean foods into my body. And I certainly didn’t look at alcohol as a problem.

Around the time I hit my late 20s, I stopped wanting to be so wild, so I cut back on the partying and the drinking. I suffered from all sorts of AS-related symptoms—horrific pain, joint immobility, digestive issues, constant eye inflammation—which forced me into periods of rest. I realized that a life without all that alcohol was a better life. Not only was I sleeping more often, but my pain management was easier. I was able to quiet my mind, go inward, and find and develop tools to soothe myself. Life was better when I wasn’t filling my calendar with endless parties that were all centered around the idea of getting wasted.

I don’t regret my younger days and I don’t judge people who drink. I still adore a few glasses of wine here and there, but I have learned that alcohol is something that doesn’t necessarily contribute to a person’s wellness.

For me, and for many other people dealing with chronic illness, inflammation is our enemy and we must be proactive in preventing it. If alcohol plays a role in inflammatory processes, we need to know about it so we can make informed decisions about our health.

What Is Inflammation?

Inflammation is the body’s response to harmful toxins or infections. Acute inflammation is good. It protects you when you’ve got a cut by sending white blood cell soldiers to the area. Chronic inflammation is very bad. It creates a state of constant internal fighting.

According to the Canadian Institute of Health, “Despite its crucial role in protecting the body, inflammation can also be inappropriate and ‘misplaced’ leading to a wide range of chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and multiple sclerosis. Inflammation also plays an important role in the most common causes of death worldwide, including atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, cancer, and chronic obstructive lung disease. Taken together, it is clear that inflammation contributes broadly to chronic illnesses.”

Alcohol and Inflammation

According to the World Journal of Gastroenterology, chronic usage of alcohol can lead to systemic inflammation.

But what about less-than-chronic use of alcohol? According to Vincent M. Pedre, M.D. at mind body green, “Large amounts of alcohol can create intestinal inflammation through multiple pathways.” For my particular condition as well as other inflammatory chronic illnesses, alcohol can actually mess up your gut flora, which is where many diseases originate.

When I got serious about taking care of my body, I spent a lot of time learning about the potential factors that could make me worse. I didn’t want to give up on all pleasures in life, and I’m not practicing complete abstinence, but I have cut drastically back on alcohol. If I didn’t, my pain levels would be through the roof.

Learning to Take Care of Myself

Part of growing up and taking accountability has been making this one particular change. I now say no to “another glass of wine” more often than I say yes. I now have to decline nights out because my health is a priority. And I now try to create experiences that don’t center on alcohol. I won’t lie and say it’s easy—because it’s not. Our society loves alcohol and most social and work functions utilize alcohol as a lubricant and a sort of badge of bonding. But knowing what’s at risk is more important than ordering that fancy martini.

As a child of two people who suffered through addiction, I am aware of my own potential downfall when it comes to addictive behaviors. I try to be both cognizant and accountable when it comes to caring for my future health, and my body today.

Living with a chronic illness means constantly managing your output, your pain, your relationships, your doctor appointments (or lack of healthcare). Adding dangerous variables that could erase all that effort just isn’t worth it to me anymore.

Some people, especially those who live with chronic pain, use alcohol to self-medicate and manage their pain. We desperately need more advocacy and resources around this issue. According to Andrew Haig, MD, “Alcohol use must be understood in individuals with chronic pain, both because of the drug interactions induced by alcohol and because of the independent effect alcoholism has on disability and suffering.”

It’s not an easy road. I’m a writer who lives in New York City—a city known for its nightlife. Drinking is part of the culture here. And I can be fairly introverted. These are all things that drinking is rumored to help with: alcohol makes you more creative, more outgoing, more fun. Right?

In the end, the answer doesn’t matter, because today I choose my body. I choose my future. I choose to stay balanced and mindful. And when I do, my body responds in kind.

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Lisa Marie Basile is a writer, editor, storyteller and community creator based in NYC. You can find her work in The New York Times, Narratively, The Establishment, Refinery 29, Bustle, Bust, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Healthline, Greatist and more. She is the author of Light Magic for Dark Times, as well as a few books of poetry. You can find her on Linkedin and Twitter.