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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 is merely an unpleasant side effect, but it can be dangerous if it leads to dehydration or is recurrent enough to damage the digestive system. 

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 alcohol causes diarrhea: 

  1. First, it easily absorbs into 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 else in your stomach when you begin alcohol use. 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, leading 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 of which 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 when 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. 

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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 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 or those who binge only on occasion. 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.

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, having an otherwise 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 when there is an immune reaction to gliadin. Gliadin is a gluten protein in wheat, rye, barley, and some oats. Oats are often contaminated with gluten because they may be 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, 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. 

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 awaken 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.

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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.

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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.

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

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