Drinking with friends and family can be a fun way to socialize. Experts estimate 70 percent of Americans ages 18 and older have consumed an alcoholic beverage in the past year.
Yet almost no one talks about a very common aftereffect of sipping adult beverages: diarrhea.
When you drink alcohol, it travels to your stomach. If there’s food in your stomach, alcohol will be absorbed along with some of the nutrients of the food into your bloodstream through the cells in the stomach wall. This slows the digestion of the alcohol.
If you haven’t eaten, the alcohol will continue to your small intestine where it similarly passes through the cells of the intestinal wall, but at a much quicker rate. This is why you feel more of a buzz, and faster, when you drink on an empty stomach.
However, eating foods that are hard on your body, such as those that are very fibrous or very greasy, can also speed up digestion.
Once most of the alcohol is absorbed, the rest is excreted from your body through your stool and urine. Your colon muscles move in a coordinated squeeze to push the stool out.
Alcohol speeds up the rate of these squeezes, which doesn’t allow for water to be absorbed by your colon as it is normally. This causes your stool to come out as diarrhea, often very quickly and with a lot of extra water.
On the other end of the spectrum, drinking large amounts of alcohol can delay digestion and cause constipation.
Alcohol can also irritate your digestive tract, worsening diarrhea. Scientists have found this occurs most often with wine, which tends to kill off helpful bacteria in the intestines.
The bacteria will recolonize and normal digestion will be restored when alcohol consumption stops and normal eating resumes.
People with bowel diseases are more prone to experiencing alcohol-induced diarrhea. This includes:
This is because their already sensitive digestive tracts are especially reactive to alcohol, which can worsen their disease symptoms, typically causing diarrhea.
People with irregular sleep schedules — including those who work night shifts or pull all-nighters regularly — tend to also experience diarrhea after drinking alcohol more than other people.
The first thing to do if you experience diarrhea while or after drinking alcohol is to cut out alcohol. Don’t drink until your digestion returns to normal. When you do drink again, be aware that the diarrhea may return.
If you refrain from drinking, most alcohol-induced cases of diarrhea will clear up in a few days. But there are some things you can do to further ease your symptoms.
What to eat and drink
Eat easily digestible foods to calm your stomach. Examples include:
- soda crackers
Drink lots of clear fluids, such as water, broth, and juice to replace some of the fluid loss you experienced when you had diarrhea.
What to avoid
Don’t drink beverages containing caffeine. They can worsen diarrhea.
Avoid eating the following:
- high-fiber foods, such as whole-grain breads and cereals
- dairy, such as milk and ice cream (yogurt is usually fine)
- high-fat foods, such as beef or cheese
- highly spiced or seasoned foods like curries
Probiotics are also found in some foods, like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
Most of the time, diarrhea after drinking alcohol will resolve over a few days of home care.
However, diarrhea can become a serious condition when it’s severe and persistent because it can lead to dehydration.
Untreated dehydration can be life-threatening. Dehydration symptoms include:
- excessive thirst
- dry mouth and skin
- decreased amounts of urine or no urine
- infrequent urination
- extreme weakness
- dark-colored urine
See your doctor if you have symptoms of dehydration and:
- You have diarrhea for more than two days without any improvement.
- You have intense abdominal or rectal pain.
- Your stool is bloody or black.
- You have a fever higher than 102˚F (39˚C).
If you experience diarrhea after drinking alcohol on a regular basis, you might want to rethink your drinking habits.
Knowing how to handle bouts of diarrhea after drinking alcohol can be helpful, because it leaves you better equipped to deal with it.