Diarrhea After Drinking Alcohol: What’s the Cause?

Most people enjoy drinking from time to time. It is a way to relieve stress, socialize with friends and bookend a busy week at work. Unfortunately, though, it can have some rather nasty side effects, including diarrhea. 

This post explores the causes of post-drink diarrhea, how to stop it and when to see a doctor. Read on to learn more. 

Can drinking alcohol cause diarrhea?

Yes, alcohol consumption can result in diarrhea. Symptoms are often worse if you mix alcohol with foods that are high in sugar or soda. 

Watery stools are by no means guaranteed, though. In fact, drinking high concentrations of alcohol may actually increase the likelihood of constipation in some people, as we discuss below. 

What causes diarrhea after drinking alcohol?

There are two main reasons alcohol causes diarrhea. The first is that drinking increases bowel motility, the speed at which feces travel through the colon. 

Under normal circumstances, the large intestine has time to reabsorb excess water from stools into the bloodstream before sending them to the rectum. That’s because bowel movements are slow. But when alcohol is present, it speeds up the muscular contractions that push stools along, causing them to come out faster. If the large colon hasn’t had time to absorb the water, diarrhea results. 

The second main cause is fluid retention. Alcohol appears to stimulate the large intestine to hold onto fluid instead of depositing it back in the bloodstream. Consequently, it comes out when you go to the bathroom.

Researchers have found even small amounts of alcohol speed up the rate of digestion. Like fibrous and greasy foods, alcohol seems to stimulate the movement of the gastrointestinal tract, making diarrhea more likely. 

Interestingly, though, large amounts of alcohol appear to have the reverse effect. Researchers found that people who drink higher alcohol concentrations were more prone to constipation than those who don’t. 

There may be other mechanisms at play, too. For instance, alcohol may change the bacterial composition of the gut. In turn, this process may irritate the gut lining, causing inflammation and making diarrhea more likely. 

What are the risk factors?

Certain people are at a higher risk for diarrhea after alcohol consumption than others. For instance, people with celiac disease (who shouldn’t eat wheat), Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome are all at high risk. Unlike the general population, their guts are more prone to irritation, particularly when they come in contact with alcohol.

People who lack sleep or work night shifts may also be at higher risk. Research shows that individuals who don’t have a proper rest schedule are more likely to have watery stools. 

Lastly, people with depression are at risk. Studies show that poor mental health, irritable bowel syndrome, and diarrhea relate to each other closely. 

How to prevent diarrhea after drinking alcohol?

While there are no failsafe ways to prevent diarrhea after drinking alcohol, there are things you can do to cut the risk.

Firstly, avoid drinking sugary alcoholic beverages. The gut and small intestine fail to absorb many sugars, meaning that they can get down into your colon where they ferment, cause gas, and increase water retention. 

Second, aim to drink one glass of water for every alcoholic beverage you consume. Additional water prevents dehydration and encourages the colon to release water back into the bloodstream.

Thirdly, avoid foods that might irritate the gastrointestinal tract. The worst offenders are fibrous and fatty foods, such as peanuts and kebabs. 

How to stop diarrhea after drinking alcohol?

If you recently drank a lot of alcohol and you are worried about developing diarrhea, there are several things that you can do. 

First, don’t drink more. Additional alcohol will only increase the likelihood of symptoms. 

Next, cut out foods that could irritate your stomach or colon. Avoid sugary sweets, candies, nuts, fatty foods, meats, cheese, and foods high in fiber, like oats and wheat germ. Don’t eat spicy foods.

Then, eat plenty of easily-digested foods to calm your system. Good choices include rice, chicken, eggs, bananas, and toast. 

If you’ve already had diarrhea, you’ll need to replace lost fluid. Be sure to consume plenty of fluids, including soups and broths. 

Lastly, you might want to consider taking tablets that prevent diarrhea. These encourage the colon to reabsorb water, making stools firmer. 

When to see a doctor?

Diarrhea after alcohol should resolve itself in one or two days, provided you stop drinking. However, if you continue to experience loose stools, it could lead to complications, such as dehydration. 

Unfortunately, severe dehydration is life-threatening. Therefore, you should go to your doctor if you experience any symptoms associated with it, such as lightheadedness, headaches, fatigue, dry mouth, skin, or extreme weakness. Pay careful attention to your pee’s color. It should be straw-like. If it is dark yellow or brown and smells strong, your body may not have enough water.

Other circumstances in which you should see your doctor include having a high fever (over 102°F), black or bloody stools, or abdominal pain. Alcohol consumption can aggravate an existing condition, causing these symptoms.

Get help from an online doctor

If you have diarrhea after drinking alcohol, you can get help from DrHouse. Our qualified online physicians can prescribe anti-diarrhea medications to provide relief and make your visits to the bathroom more pleasant. 

Key Takeaways

  • Diarrhea is a common side effect of drinking
  • Small amounts of alcohol taken daily appear to increase the risk of diarrhea just as much as heavy drinking sessions
  • Regular heavy drinkers, however, are at higher risk of constipation, not diarrhea
  • Alcohol causes diarrhea by speeding up bowel movements and encouraging the colon to retain more water
  • If you have diarrhea after drinking alcohol, eat gentle foods, consume plenty of fluid, and take tablets designed to reduce colon water retention
  • See your doctor if you are becoming dehydrated, have bloody stools, or severe abdominal pain

Sources:

  • Nischita K. Reddy, MD, MPH, Ashwani Singal, MD, and Don W. Powell, MD. Alcohol-Related Diarrhea. Available here
  • Bujanda L. The effects of alcohol consumption upon the gastrointestinal tract. Am J Gastroenterol. 2000 Dec;95(12):3374-82. doi: 10.1111/j.1572-0241.2000.03347.x. PMID: 11151864.
  • Gonzalez Z, Herlihy D, Phan C, et alAlcohol and gastric motility: pathophysiological and therapeutic implicationsJournal of Investigative Medicine 2020;68:965-971. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/jim-2020-001327 
  • Segovia-Rodríguez, L., Echeverry-Alzate, V., Rincón-Pérez, I. et al. Gut microbiota and voluntary alcohol consumption. Transl Psychiatry 12, 146 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-022-01920-2 
  • Cremonini F, Camilleri M, Zinsmeister AR, Herrick LM, Beebe T, Talley NJ. Sleep disturbances are linked to both upper and lower gastrointestinal symptoms in the general population. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2009 Feb;21(2):128-35. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2982.2008.01181.x . Epub 2008 Sep 18. PMID: 18823289; PMCID: PMC2642899.
  • Lu J, Shi L, Huang D, Fan W, Li X, Zhu L, Wei J, Fang X. Depression and Structural Factors Are Associated With Symptoms in Patients of Irritable Bowel Syndrome With Diarrhea. J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2020 Sep 30;26(4):505-513. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.5056/jnm19166 . PMID: 32675388; PMCID: PMC7547200.

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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