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

Photo: Stocksy/ Lyuba Burakova
A drink or two can help you relax and unwind, but imbibing can also have unwanted side effects. Hangovers, dehydration, and even mood swings are all par for the course when you’ve had too much to drink. One more side effect that you might not have seen coming is watery bowels. Indeed, the relationship between alcohol and gut health are closely intertwined. In fact, alcohol consumption can cause diarrhea—and it’s a fairly common experience.

Experts In This Article

As to why this happens, we turned to gastroenterologists. Ahead, they explain the connection between diarrhea and drinking alcohol and provide tips for preventing alcohol-related diarrhea.

Why does alcohol cause diarrhea?

According to Sarah Robbins, MD, MSc, FRCPC, board-certified gastroenterologist and founder of Well Sunday: “Alcohol is a direct irritant to the gut.” She explains that drinking alcohol is akin to applying rubbing alcohol onto your skin—it’s hard on the stomach, and all the more so when consumed in large volumes, causing watery stools as a result of irritation.

Many alcoholic beverages and rubbing alcohol also share a common ingredient: ethanol, which not only irritates the gut but can also increase intestinal motility, causing the stomach to empty more quickly, says board-certified gastroenterologist Niket Sonpal, MD, adjunct assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine and clinical instructor at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center. “On top of that, speedy digestion means your colon has less time to absorb water—if you’re drinking any at all—resulting in diarrhea,” he says.

Dr. Robbins says that in addition to accelerating intestinal motility, you can also expect alcohol to increase your heart rate. This can manifest as heart palpitations and even chest pain after drinking alcohol.

These are all factors that lead to diarrhea in the short term, but there is also a direct link between frequently imbibing alcohol and digestive issues in the long run. For one, ethanol can disrupt the gut microbiome. “It alters the microbiome, and it predisposes us to dysbiosis, which is an imbalance between harmful and helpful bacteria,” says Dr. Robbins, adding that in cases of sustained use of alcohol, this imbalance can lead to chronic diarrhea. She says that it can also wreak havoc on the stomach lining and, moreover, impact your liver and pancreas—all of which, she says, can cause a prolonged bout of diarrhea.

Are certain types of alcohol more likely to cause diarrhea?

Too much of any alcohol can cause diarrhea, says Dr. Robbins. However, some types of alcohol are worse than others, including ones with very high concentration. Dr. Sonpal agrees: “In general, the more concentrated the alcohol, the more likely you are to have problems in the bathroom.” (Think tequila, vodka, and whiskey.)

Another offender is beer. “With a high-carb drink like beer, some of the carbs will reach your large intestine without entirely breaking down,” he says. “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:

Are some people more prone to diarrhea after drinking than others?

Alcohol-induced diarrhea tends to afflict people who drink more and more frequently. “Binge drinking can severely damage your digestive tract, leading to frequent diarrhea spells,” says Dr. Sonpal. Additionally, drinking too much and too often can damage the stomach’s protective lining. This, he says, can potentially lead to “leaky gut syndrome1,” which is characterized by diarrhea and chest pain from gas, discomfort, and abdominal bloating.

Leaky gut isn’t an official medical diagnosis, but its accompanying symptoms might indicate your digestive system isn’t working as it should. Individuals with digestive issues, like irritable bowel syndrome (or IBS), are also more prone to diarrhea after drinking. According to one study published in 2022, consuming large quantities of alcohol might worsen symptoms of IBS.

How long does diarrhea usually last after drinking?

Diarrhea will typically last for as long as the alcohol is in your system, which can be hours, says Dr. Robbins. However, Lauren Bleich, MD, MPH, board-certified gastroenterologist at Gastro Health, says that it can sometimes last even longer. “After an episode of heavy drinking, your digestive tract will return to normal within a few days,” she says. “If you drink heavily more regularly, cessation of alcohol can lead to your stools returning to normal within a few weeks.”

Is it possible to have diarrhea after you’ve quit drinking?

If you’ve quit drinking, whether out of necessity or for no other reason than to affirm to yourself that you can have fun without alcohol, it is possible to have diarrhea after you’ve stopped imbibing. According to Dr. Robbins, this is more likely among individuals who have a history of drinking heavily, as alcohol can create longer-lasting damage to the gut and microbiome—and it can take some time to heal your overall gut health after quitting alcohol.

Dr. Bleich adds: “Alcohol consumption can lead to pancreatitis or inflammation of the pancreas. If this becomes a chronic issue, pancreatic damage can manifest partially as persistent diarrhea.” However, Dr. Robbins says that this is mostly common in extreme cases of alcohol consumption.

Conversely, can alcohol cause constipation?

While alcohol-induced diarrhea is common, it isn’t a universal experience. For some people, drinking alcohol can have the reverse effect. Constipation can also be a side effect of imbibing alcohol. Alcohol is dehydrating—and when you become dehydrated, your body typically pulls more fluid from your colon. The result is hard, lumpy stools that are a strain to pass.

How to prevent alcohol-induced diarrhea

If you’re more likely to experience the runs when you drink, here are some tips for avoiding alcohol-induced diarrhea, as per Dr. Sonpal’s advice.

  1. Eat before and while you drink: “Try to eat a well-balanced meal with a lot of fiber,” says Dr. Sonpal, or at the very least, have a snack before and while you drink.
  2. Avoid certain foods if you’re drinking: While you want to avoid drinking on an empty stomach, certain foods might increase your chances of having diarrhea when you pair them with 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,” says Dr. Sonpal.
  3. Drink plenty of water: It’s critical to drink plenty of water before, during, and after drinking alcohol to prevent dehydration. Drinking a glass of water per alcoholic drink can also help you pace yourself when you’re imbibing.
  4. Eat a well-balanced breakfast the morning after: A breakfast consisting of fiber, healthy fats, and protein can be a boon to people who drank the night before, helping to promote healthy bowel movements in the short term and over time.

When to see a doctor

The best way to avoid alcohol-related diarrhea is to limit your alcohol consumption, which can have short- and long-term effects on your digestive system. However, if you often have diarrhea after drinking, or it persists for more than a few days after imbibing, Dr. Bleich recommends an evaluation from your local gastroenterologist.

Frequently asked questions

How long does it take for your gut to recover from alcohol?

The short answer is that it depends on the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption. If, for instance, you’ve had one too many margaritas, it can typically take anywhere from a few days to several weeks. However, it can take longer for those who are frequent over-imbibers.

Does alcohol ruin your gut health?

In the long term, alcohol’s impact on your digestion and overall gut health can have long-term effects. Dr. Robbins says that it can lead to an imbalance in gut microbiome, as well as damage your pancreas and stomach lining, which Dr. Sonpal adds can cause leaky gut syndrome. Alcohol doesn’t only have adverse effects on your gut. “It can be hard on our brains, too,” says Dr. Robbins, and the effects of alcohol as we age only worsen. With this in mind, “there’s a lot of good reasons to be quite moderate with alcohol that I think we didn’t realize before.”

—reviewed by Jennifer Gilbert, MD, MPH

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Aleman, Ricardo Santos et al. “Leaky Gut and the Ingredients That Help Treat It: A Review.” Molecules (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 28,2 619. 7 Jan. 2023, doi:10.3390/molecules28020619
  2. Okawa, Yohei. “A Discussion of Whether Various Lifestyle Changes can Alleviate the Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.” Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 10,10 2011. 12 Oct. 2022, doi:10.3390/healthcare10102011

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.

Loading More Posts...