Healthy Gut

OK, TMI: Why Does Drinking Alcohol Always Give Me Diarrhea?

Isadora Baum

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A lot of things in our lives right now feel very different. We’re working from home; we’re streaming all of our workouts; we’re making inventive dishes out of the random things in our pantry. But one of the things that hasn’t changed is our love of happy hours—we’re just doing our drinking with friends over Zoom rather than in a bar or someone’s backyard.

However, like any kind of drinking in normal circumstances, quarantine drinking comes with its share of side effects. Hangovers, dehydration, and even mood swings are all par for the course when over-imbibing. But there is another potential outcome from drinking alcohol that you might not have seen coming: diarrhea.

Okay so, can alcohol cause diarrhea, or is it just a coincidence?

Short answer: Yes, it can. “To understand why drinking alcohol causes diarrhea, you must remember that alcohol is a diuretic. This means any alcohol will increase the excretion of water from bodies and explains why we need to pee so much when we drink,” says Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York-based gastroenterologist and adjunct professor at Touro College.

Plus, the ethanol found in alcohol increases gut movement, meaning that your wine or homemade margarita are fast-tracked through your system to your colon before being fully digested. “On top of that, speedy digestion means your colon has less time to absorb water—if you’re drinking any at all—resulting in watery stool (diarrhea),” Dr. Sonpal says.

However, the poo-inducing effects of alcohol depends on a few factors, says Dr. Sonpal, besides the individual themselves and what typically can irritate their bowels. “In general, the more concentrated the alcohol, the more likely you are to have problems in the bathroom,” he says. So drinks with a higher ABV per serving, like whiskey, tequila, and vodka, might contribute to post-drinking loose stools more than, say, wine.

The drink’s composition also can play a role. “With a high-carb drink like beer, some of the carbs will reach your large intestine without entirely breaking down,” says Dr. Sonpal. “The bacteria in your large intestine will start to convert the carbs into energy, which can result in gas, bloating, and diarrhea.” This can apply to sugary cocktails and other sneakily-sugary drinks as well.

Looking for a better-for-you alcohol option? Here’s an RD’s guide to wine and champagne: 

Why are some people more prone to this than others?

Again, diarrhea after drinking depends on a lot of factors, including what a person drank and how much. But Dr. Sonpal says that typically people who drink more (and more frequently) are more likely to deal with this problem. “Binge drinking can severely damage your digestive tract, leading to frequent diarrhea spells,” he says. “Chronic alcohol consumption has been found to thin the protective inner layer of the stomach. This can potentially lead to a severe condition called leaky gut syndrome, decreasing the stomach’s ability to get rid of harmful bacteria.”

People with existing digestive issues should consider limiting their consumption too, as alcohol irritates the gut and has been associated with worse symptoms in people with IBS.

How to enjoy your next happy hour (without risking the runs)

First, don’t forget to eat before (and while) you’re imbibing, says Dr. Sonpal. “Try to eat a well-balanced meal with a lot of fiber,” he says. “Even if you don’t have time for a full meal, having a simple snack that is fiber-filled can help enhance your hydration.”

What you’re eating while you’re drinking can also play a role in how your stomach will react to alcohol. “Avoid these foods when drinking, as they tend to further speed up the digestion process and irritate the bowels: spicy food, highly seasoned foods, dairy, greasy or fried foods, and caffeinated beverages,” he says. So consider trading the cheese plate for chips and hummus or guacamole to go with your glass of wine.

It’s also key to drink plenty of water before, during, and after you have alcohol to help boost hydration. (Your potential future hangover will thank you for it.) A great rule of thumb: Drink a glass of water between alcoholic drinks to help pace yourself.

Lastly, after drinking, avoid those above-mentioned problematic foods and drink a full glass of water before going to sleep. When you wake up, start your morning with a well-balanced breakfast that has some good fiber, healthy fats, and protein. This can help balance your body and bowels back out to keep you more regular moving forward as it repairs the damage. You’ll be all the happier for it.

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