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Why Does Alcohol Consumption Cause Diarrhea?

Diarrhea is a side effect of drinking alcohol. The risk of this occurring after drinking increases based on the type and amount of alcohol consumed. 

For most people, diarrhea after drinking is merely an unpleasant side effect. However, it can be dangerous if it leads to dehydration or is recurrent enough to damage the digestive system

Luckily, it is possible to reduce your risk of diarrhea when drinking or to eliminate it by avoiding alcohol.

How Can Alcohol Cause Diarrhea?

There are a few reasons why alcoholic drinks cause diarrhea: 

  1. First, it gets absorbed easily by your body's tissues. It enters the bloodstream moments after you take a sip and begins to affect you within minutes. The majority of absorption occurs as it is digested, which can irritate the stomach and intestines. The effects are worse if there is nothing in your stomach when you begin to drink alcohol. This is why it’s easier to get intoxicated if you haven’t eaten.
  1. Alcohol is also high in sugar, which triggers the gut to produce water and electrolytes. This leads to loose bowel movements. Studies show the majority of people who consume 40 to 80 grams or more of sugar per day develop diarrhea.
  1. Alcohol triggers inflammation and causes the stomach to produce more acid. Both can lead to diarrhea. It also speeds the digestion process and damages the gut’s healthy bacteria. Even a healthy person who consumes a moderate amount of alcohol can experience diarrhea after drinking because of the way alcohol negatively impacts the digestive system.
  1. Finally, many types of alcohol contain gluten. If a gluten-sensitive person consumes alcohol containing gluten it will trigger a reaction that often includes diarrhea. 

SUMMARY

Alcohol consumption causes diarrhea. This is because alcohol irritates the gastrointestinal tract, causing inflammation. Drinking alcohol is dangerous because it may lead to dehydration and/or damage the digestive system.

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Dangers of Diarrhea after Drinking

Usually, diarrhea after drinking is not a cause for concern. A few days of self-care resolves most cases.

However, if diarrhea persists, it can lead to serious problems, especially dehydration. If dehydration goes untreated it can become a life-threatening condition. Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Extreme thirst
  • Infrequent, decreased, or no urine
  • Dark colored or dark yellow urine
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Lack of energy
  • Fuzzy thinking

Diarrhea alone will usually resolve itself. However, if you don't drink enough water, it can lead to dehydration.

Effects of Alcohol on Your Digestive System

Alcohol negatively impacts the digestive system. For most people, even a small amount of alcohol will trigger:

  • Inflammation in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract
  • Increased production of stomach acid
  • Inability of the large intestine to properly absorb water needed for hydration
  • Faster digestion due to an increase in colon contractions
  • Bacterial imbalance due to alcohol killing off healthy bacteria in the gut

How Does Binge Drinking Affect Digestion?

Excessive alcohol intake of any kind can trigger digestive problems. This is a risk for people who consume alcohol regularly and those who only binge occasionally. An excessive amount of alcohol changes the composition of the gut by killing healthy bacteria and allowing unhealthy bacteria to grow.

Binge drinking is also associated with a higher risk of gastrointestinal cancer.

SUMMARY

Too much alcohol consumption can lead to dehydration, inflammation of the GI tract, hyperacidity, colon spasms, and bacterial imbalance. Binge drinking may also lead to gastrointestinal cancer.

Who Has An Increased Risk of Alcohol-Related Diarrhea?

Those more at risk of experiencing alcohol-related diarrhea include:

Poor Lifestyle Choices

Your habits play a role in the side effects you’ll experience when drinking alcohol. Binge drinking, drinking on an empty stomach, and having an unhealthy diet all put you at risk of developing diarrhea. The risk is worse for people who have gluten sensitivities or sensitive digestive systems in general.

People With Gastrointestinal or Bladder Diseases

If you have a pre-existing gastrointestinal or bladder health issue, you are more likely to develop diarrhea after drinking. This is especially true for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, or Crohn’s disease.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a chronic digestive disorder caused by an immune reaction to gliadin. Gliadin is a gluten protein in wheat, rye, barley, and some oats. Oats are often contaminated with gluten if they are processed in the same facilities as gluten-containing grains like wheat, rye, and barley.

Someone with celiac disease who consumes alcohol or other triggering foods experiences bloating, inflammation, and destruction of the lining of the small intestine. This makes their bodies less capable of absorbing nutrients and minerals. One of the symptoms of celiac disease is diarrhea.

Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s disease is a chronic condition that causes inflammation of the digestive tract. It affects all parts of the digestive system from the mouth to the anus. In addition to diarrhea after drinking alcohol, someone with Crohn’s can experience pain and have a higher risk of developing ulcers.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder. Most people do not experience severe complications, but IBS causes discomfort and is an inconvenience. It is possible to manage the symptoms of this condition and avoiding alcohol is one of the main defenses against it. 

SUMMARY

People with poor lifestyle choices, gastrointestinal disorders, bladder disease, and those diagnosed with Celiac disease, Crohn's disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are more at risk of having alcohol-related diarrhea.

Treatment Options & Prevention

The best way to prevent alcohol-related diarrhea is to not consume alcohol.

However, if you prefer not to abstain completely, it is possible to reduce your risk by drinking slowly and only consuming moderate amounts. It’s also important to never drink on an empty stomach. Food in your stomach slows the absorption of alcohol and provides a barrier so alcohol is not as irritating to your digestive tract.

Another tool to help you prevent alcohol-related diarrhea is a fiber supplement. One of the reasons diarrhea arises after drinking is because the alcohol prevents your colon from reabsorbing water normally. This leads to loose, urgent, and sometimes watery stools for a day or more after drinking. A soluble fiber supplement absorbs water in the bowels and helps your stool firm up before passing.

Choosing more easily digestible types of alcohol is also effective, especially for people with IBS. If you have IBS and want to drink, choose lower-FODMAP liquors. FODMAPS are poorly digested carbs and they are found in higher amounts in rum and dark wines. 

High-FODMAP mixers such as tonic water, colas, and fruit juices containing high fructose corn syrup further aggravate the situation. To reduce your risk of diarrhea triggered by FODMAPS, opt for white wine, champagne, gin, or vodka, and mix with fresh citrus fruit or club soda. 

Finally, you should offset the effects of alcohol and diarrhea by replenishing your body’s salt supply. Diarrhea leads to dehydration which leads to more diarrhea, creating an unhealthy cycle that throws your system into chaos. If you wake up after a night of drinking with a hangover that includes an unsettled stomach, consider drinking high-sodium drinks such as Gatorade, V8, or Pedialyte to rebalance your system.

What to Eat When You Have Diarrhea

If you have diarrhea you should eat simple foods that are easy to digest, such as:

  • Rice
  • Bananas
  • Bread/toast
  • Saltines
  • Eggs
  • Chicken

You should also drink as many clear fluids to replace the water you lost. These include water, broth, tea, and juice.

You should avoid foods and drinks that contain:

  • Caffeine, which can make diarrhea worse
  • Spices or lots of seasoning
  • A lot of fat, like butter, cheese, and beef
  • Dairy, including milk and cream (plain yogurt can be an exception, depending on how your body reacts to it)
  • A lot of fiber such as whole grain breads, beans, and cereal

If necessary, you can also use over-the-counter antidiarrheal medications. These include Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate) and Imodium (loperamide). Follow the instructions on the box carefully and do not take more than the recommended dosage.

You may also want to consider adding probiotics to your diet. You can buy them over-the-counter and take them orally. They are also found naturally in many foods and drinks including yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, and other fermented products. If you are considering taking them in supplement form, speak with your doctor to figure out what your dosage should be.

SUMMARY

If drinking alcohol gives you diarrhea, stop drinking or drink in moderation. Avoid foods and drinks containing caffeine, lots of spices or seasoning, a lot of fat, and dairy. Instead, eat easy-to-digest foods like bananas, eggs, rice, bread, and chicken.

Should I See a Doctor?

Most cases of diarrhea will resolve themselves in a few days, especially if you use the home treatments listed above. However, if you have symptoms of dehydration and any of the following, see a doctor:

  • Black or bloody stool
  • Diarrhea for over two days with no signs of recovery
  • Intense rectal or abdominal pain
  • A fever of 102˚F or higher (39˚C)

If you consistently experience diarrhea after drinking, you should reconsider your drinking habits. If you are struggling with alcohol abuse, it's always a good idea to contact an addiction counselor to get help.

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Resources

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Harvard Health Publishing. “Is Something in Your Diet Causing Diarrhea? - Harvard Health.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health, 12 July 2016, www.health.harvard.edu/digestive-health/is-something-in-your-diet-causing-diarrhea.

Tamara Duker Freuman. “Why Does Alcohol Give You Diarrhea?” US News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 2018, health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/articles/2018-07-09/why-does-alcohol-give-you-diarrhea.

SF;, Chiba T;Phillips. “Alcohol-Related Diarrhea.” Addiction Biology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20575826/.

“Diarrhea after Drinking Alcohol: Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319165.

David B. Huang, et al. "United States Male Students Who Heavily Consume Alcohol in Mexico are at Greater Risk of Travelers' Diarrhea than their Female Counterparts," Journal of Travel Medicine, Volume 11, Issue 3, 1 May 2004, Pages 143–147, https://doi.org/10.2310/7060.2004.18560

Bujanda, Luis. “The Effects of Alcohol Consumption upon the Gastrointestinal Tract.” The American Journal of Gastroenterology, Elsevier, 24 Jan. 2002, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002927000021407.

Wiese, Jeffrey G., et. al. “The Alcohol Hangover.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 6 June 2000, https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/full/10.7326/0003-4819-132-11-200006060-00008

“Acute Alcohol Intoxication.” Mount Holyoke College, 20 July 2020, www.mtholyoke.edu/health/acute_alcohol_intoxication.

J;, Persson. “Alcohol and the Small Intestine.” Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 8 July 2009, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2006395/.

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