3 Ways Drinking Alcohol Affects Your Bowel Movements—and What to Do About It

Though it’s not a glamorous topic, alcohol-related digestive distress can cause some very real consequences. Here are some common symptoms and what to do about them. 

Drinking alcohol is something many people across the globe do regularly, but it's important to keep it in its place. In moderation, alcohol might have some health benefits like lowering stress, improving mental health and even improving heart health. But if you overdo it, it can lead to some unsavory consequences like dehydration, fatigue, trouble focusing and feeling "off." And, as if the hangovers weren't punishment enough, drinking too much alcohol also can pose some problems for your bathroom routine. Here, we take a look at three ways drinking too much can affect your bowel movements, and provide some tips to help you find relief.

Woman with a stomach ache on a green background
Getty Images / AaronAmat

1. It may cause diarrhea

Alcohol is absorbed through our stomach and small intestine directly into our bloodstream. And since it is technically a toxin, the body tries to process it as quickly as possible to remove it. Having food in our stomachs can help slow down digestion, but alcohol is processed particularly quickly on an empty stomach. Once alcohol is absorbed, our body flushes out water and nutrients through our digestive tract, which dehydrates us and can cause alcohol-related diarrhea.

2. It could delay stomach emptying

After we swallow our food, it makes its way through our esophagus and down to our stomach. In order for it to move from our stomach to our intestines, a process called gastric emptying needs to occur. To stimulate gastric emptying, the smooth muscles of our stomach contract in waves and work to release the muscle (called the pyloric sphincter) at the bottom of our stomach. Liquids usually pass more quickly than solids, and a typical meal takes around 1½ to 2 hours to empty. Research has found that chronic overconsumption of alcohol can lead to delayed gastric emptying. Over time, this can impair the way that your gastrointestinal tract is able to function, and can lead to dangerous blockages.

3. It may increase inflammation in the gut

In large quantities, the metabolites of alcohol digestion (i.e., the compounds left after alcohol is broken down in our bodies) can promote intestinal inflammation. Research suggests that this increase in inflammation can exacerbate alcohol-related organ damage, which leads to more inflammation and so the cycle is perpetuated. The negative effects this can have on your digestive tract in the long run include altered microbiome composition, increased intestinal permeability and damage to the immune system. In other words, this can damage your gut health and immune system, making it harder to stay healthy and normally digest foods.

What to Do About It

These outcomes are not the glamorous things that come to mind when we agree to grab a drink with a friend, but the reality is that excessive alcohol consumption can wreak havoc on the digestive system. For those of us who have experienced the consequences of excessive drinking firsthand, we know how unpleasant it can be. Here are some tips to help you get ahead of and recover from alcohol-related changes to your bowel movements.

Drink in moderation

The best way to spare yourself from digestive distress (and a hangover) is to drink in moderation. Binge drinking is classified as having more than four drinks during an occasion for women and five drinks for men, so it's important to stay below this threshold to help your body process alcohol in a healthier way. And keep in mind that the recommendation is one to two drinks a day in total for adults. Sip your drinks slowly and alternate with water to avoid getting ahead of yourself.

Eat BRAT-diet foods

If you are experiencing digestive distress or diarrhea, you might not be in the mood to eat. But certain foods might help, if you're up for it. Many experts recommend the BRAT diet for diarrhea, which includes bananas, rice, applesauce and toast (hence the acronym BRAT). All of these foods are soft and bland, which might help settle your stomach. That said, more research is needed to support the efficacy of the BRAT diet, but it likely won't hurt to try. If it doesn't help you, there's no need to strictly stick to it when you're experiencing symptoms.

Consider an over-the-counter remedy

If all else fails, there are several antidiarrheal medications that can help with symptom management, like Imodium or Pepto-Bismol. You can find them at your local pharmacy or grocery store. Additionally, probiotics might help reinforce the good bacteria in your gut and help your system recover more quickly. While you can take probiotic supplements, we prefer to choose food sources that contain them, like kimchi, yogurt, miso and sauerkraut.

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