Drinking with friends and family can be a fun way to socialize. An estimated 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 is 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.
Scientists have found that that drinking small amounts of alcohol tends to speed up the rate of digestion, causing diarrhea. 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 such as celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or Crohn’s disease are more prone to experiencing alcohol-induced diarrhea. 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 suffer from diarrhea after drinking alcohol more than other people. Scientists have found that a lack of regular sleep makes the digestive tract more sensitive to the effects of alcohol because it’s not getting normal rest.
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, and when you do, 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:
- Drink lots of clear fluids such as water, broth, and juice, which will replace some of the fluid loss you experience when you have diarrhea.
- Avoid caffeine as well. It can worsen diarrhea.
- Eat easily digestible foods such as:
- soda crackers
- Avoid eating these:
- 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
- Use over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications as needed (such as Imodium A-D or Pepto-Bismol).
- Consider taking probiotics (available in pill or liquid form, and found in some foods like yogurt).
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 cause dehydration. Dehydration can be life-threatening if untreated. You should see a doctor if you experience any of the following:
- You have diarrhea for more than two days without any improvement.
- You begin showing the symptoms of dehydration:
- excessive thirst
- dry mouth and skin
- decreased amounts of urine or no urine
- infrequent urination
- extreme weakness
- dark colored urine
- 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.
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