Alcohol use is commonplace in human social situations and has been for centuries. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that approximately 2.3 billion people drink alcohol worldwide, making it one of the most commonly used drugs.
Alcohol abuse can lead to serious illness and even death, but humans do not have to abuse alcohol to feel its negative health effects. Even low to moderate alcohol use can raise the risk of injury and motor vehicle crashes, as well as contribute to high blood pressure and issues with the digestive system, which consists of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, stomach, liver, intestines and anus. One of the more common, and relatively mild digestive ailments associated with drinking alcohol is diarrhea, which is defined as a bowel movement with a watery consistency.
While alcohol use is legal and commonplace, it is technically a drug known as a central nervous system depressant, which reduces the efficiency of bodily organs, according to the Addiction Center. Although its use is socially ubiquitous, excessive alcohol use is linked to digestive issues which can cause upset to the stomach due to inflammation, harmful bacteria, acid production, increased digestion and water absorption.
The reason alcohol can have this unsettling and uncomfortable effect on our stomach is because it is the first stop along the gastrointestinal tract that has prolonged exposure to alcohol, with alcohol sitting in the stomach and being absorbed into the bloodstream through the lining of the stomach walls.
While it sits there, alcohol can damage the cells, create inflammation, lesions and increase microbial degradation (rotting) of the contents of the stomach.
Yes, alcohol is a known irritant of the gut and our body works overtime to excrete it from our bodies as quickly as possible. The speed with which the body attempts to expel alcohol means that the water in the stomach isn’t absorbed into the colon at the normal rate, which leads to the stool having more water and having the runny consistency of diarrhea.
There are a number of reasons why we experience diarrhea after drinking alcohol, including inflammation, digestion, sugar, bacteria, lack of water absorption and underlying gastrointestinal conditions.
There is a reason that it is suggested not to drink on an empty stomach. Alcohol travels to the stomach where it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Because it passes through the body so quickly, alcohol also inflames the lining of the digestive system, leading to enhanced acid production, rapid digestion and often diarrhea.
Alcohol is packed full of sugar, with the average glass of red wine having almost a gram of sugar. When you have an influx of sugar into your digestive tract, your stomach and intestines begin to increase the amount of fluids to dilute which can not only contribute to type 2 diabetes long term, but loose stools short term.
Alcohol like beer is also packed with carbohydrates which are harder to digest, which means stools may not be fully formed or of the usual consistency before a bowel movement is experienced.
Approximately 100 trillion bacteria live inside the digestive system, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Not all of this bacteria is good, and sometimes alcohol can cause chemical imbalances to occur which leads to gastrointestinal distress. One of the body’s mechanisms for handling this bacterial imbalance or overproduction of harmful bacteria is to excrete contents of the stomach and intestines as soon as possible, resulting in diarrhea.
Alcohol not only causes your body to expel liquids quickly, but also impairs the function of the large intestine and hampers water absorption. This activity can lead to diarrhea like symptoms due to the intestines’ inability to properly and efficiently digest the contents of the gastrointestinal tract.
An unhealthy relationship with alcohol can lead to excessive drinking, alcohol related diarrhea and even alcohol use disorder, which can have terrible consequences. However, chronic diarrhea after drinking can also be a clear sign of an underlying gastrointestinal disorder such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Celiac disease or Crohn’s disease.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a medical condition that affects the large intestine. While its exact cause and mechanism is not fully understood, IBS appears to act through abnormal muscle and nerve activity in the intestines, causing painful contractions, cramping, abdominal pain, gut breath, stomach bloating, constipation and chronic diarrhea. It is a chronic condition that remains for life, however there are ways to treat irritable bowel syndrome so that flare-ups can be reduced and discomfort can be alleviated.
As alcohol is shown to irritate the digestive system and speed up digestion, it is not recommended to drink alcohol if you suffer from IBS symptoms. However, if you suffer from IBS, this does not necessarily mean you can’t drink at all. Many digestive diseases and conditions such as IBS are different for every person, with varying degrees of food and alcohol tolerance, and severity of symptoms.
While alcohol is not the best idea for someone with irritable bowel syndrome, it is up to the individual to work out what works best for them and what their trigger drinks are, and what moderation they can drink in without experiencing symptoms like diarrhea.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation to the small intestine through interaction with gluten, a protein that is commonly found in bread, oats, rye and barley. Over time, this inflammation can cause damage to the lining of the small intestines and make it difficult for some nutrients to be absorbed leading to malnutrition, weight loss, weak immune system and low energy levels, among other symptoms. The only known treatment for people with celiac disease is keeping to a strict gluten-free diet to avoid exacerbating their digestive system.
Symptoms of Celiac disease are triggered by gluten, a common ingredient in beer. However, most other alcoholic beverages are gluten-free, which means they are less likely to cause inflammation in the small intestine. That having been said, drinking alcohol is still not advised for people with inflammatory bowel diseases, as it naturally inflames the digestive system. If you do choose to drink, make sure you drink in moderation and accompany your beverages with water to dilute the alcohol. If you are a celiac who loves beer, there are also gluten-free beer options that are delicious and easy on the stomach.
Crohn’s disease is another kind of inflammatory bowel disease which involves inflammation in different or multiple areas of the digestive tract. It is highly individualistic, with some people experiencing discomfort or pain in the small intestines, the large intestine or both.
Crohn’s disease is more common in those with Celiac disease, with an overlap of symptoms such as anaemia, stomach gurgling, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Whilst disagreement exists between experts regarding the scope of the connection between Celiac Disease and Crohn’s Disease, the main difference between the two is that unlike Celiac disease, it is still not known what triggers and exacerbates the symptoms of Crohn’s disease.
Alcohol affects gut functioning, the immune system and can lead to inflammation of the stomach. As such, it is generally advised to avoid excessive use of alcohol in general, and particularly so if you are having an active flare-up. However, as the symptomology and severity of Crohn’s disease varies from person to person, whether or not you can or should drink alcohol will rely entirely on your tolerance. It is frustrating for people with inflammatory bowel diseases to hear, but there is no quick fix or decisive health plan for dealing with Crohn’s disease. People living with Crohn’s must monitor their symptoms and make changes to their diet and alcohol consumption as needed.
Some diarrhea can be avoided, and some can not be avoided, particularly if you have a pre-existing inflammatory bowel disease. To avoid alcohol-induced diarrhea, the best prevention strategy is to modify your drinking habits, either by abstaining from alcohol completely, or to employ low to moderate drinking.
The amount of alcohol units changes from drink to drink, and the amount of alcohol in your stomach plays a key role in your digestion and possibility of experiencing diarrhea. Different types of beer, wine and spirits have different alcohol contents, and it is important that you understand what a standard drink is, and how much you are drinking. If you think you may be ingesting more alcoholic drinks than normal, you may be experiencing alcohol related diarrhea, which is easy to fix. If you are worried about the moderation of your drinking, you might want to speak to a doctor about whether addiction treatment is neccessary. As previously mentioned, it is also essential to keep in mind what mixers are accompanying your different alcoholic beverages, if any, as they can be even more damaging risk factors to the digestive system than the alcohol itself.
If you are intent on drinking alcohol, ensure that you also drink plenty of water to balance out the influx of gastric acid into the GI tract, as well as to dilute the alcohol. This will go a long way in keeping your stomach healthy and functioning efficiently, as well as lessening that hangover if you overdo it.
Eating before you drink does not just reduce hangovers, but it also means you have solids in your stomach which can slow the absorption rate of alcohol to the body and aid the digestion process. This in turn produces bowel movements with a thicker consistency.
Coffee stimulates bowel movements. This is because caffeine speeds up your metabolism which aids in quick digestion, often causing loose, watery stool. Avoiding caffeinated beverages, powders or tablets is a great way to prevent diarrhea from occurring.
This is a culmination of several of the previous points, but it is important not just to eat and drink, but to eat and drink the right things! Different kinds of alcohol impact the digestive system differently, as do different foods. Bland binding foods such as bananas, toast and apples are great for producing solid stools, while alcohol such as vodka, red wine and dry white wines have less sugar than fruity cocktails and less carbohydrates than beer.
Diarrhea can be uncomfortable, unpleasant and lead to dehydration and other serious illnesses. Unfortunately, the most common method of treatment once you are experiencing it is to eat dry food, rehydrate and rest. However there are a few specific ways that you can bring diarhhea and resulting dehydration to a halt as quickly as possible.
Diarrhea usually clears up on its own with rest, fluids and a good diet, but if you are still suffering from abdominal problems and runny stool there are some homemade remedies to ease the discomfort, as well as doctor’s prescriptions which will have stronger effect over a shorter period of time.
Home remedies to soothe your diarrhea include:
While most diarrhea is mild and goes away on its own, it is advised to seek medical advice if diarrhea persists for more than two days without subsiding or improving at all. Persistent diarrhea can cause serious illness which may be signified by symptoms such as dry mouth, fever, fatigue, dehydration, weakness, dizziness and nausea, as well as possible abdominal and rectal discomfort or pain. If diarrhea persists, some more serious medical treatments include:
If you continue to struggle with persistent symptoms of pain, diarrhoea or abdominal pain, you should consider seeking advice from your GP. Following a consultation with your doctor, they may refer you to a gastroenterologist if they think you may have an underlying condition that affects your gut.
The Centre for Gastrointestinal Health comprises an expert team of specialists, dieticians and anaesthetists who can help provide your diagnosis, treatment and ongoing management for chronic conditions.
For more information, check out the services we offer, or contact us today!