Diarrhea is one of the most common gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms people experience after consuming alcohol. While alcohol-induced diarrhea typically doesn’t require treatment, it can be indicative of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, or another serious health condition. As a physician on Monument’s online alcohol treatment platform, I often work with patients to understand this symptom, why it occurs, and how to find relief.
Why Do I Get Diarrhea After Drinking?
In general, diarrhea occurs when the intestine excretes too much water, moves too fast, or can’t properly absorb water. Alcohol consumption can trigger diarrhea through all of these mechanisms, and damage the GI tract in the process. Let’s break down the different ways alcohol can cause diarrhea.
Faster Gut Movement
The gut is constantly stretching and contracting in order for the body to process food and absorb important nutrients. One location these gut contractions happen is in the large intestine, which is responsible for absorbing water. When alcohol enters the large intestine, it causes these contractions to move abnormally fast, which minimizes water absorption. The excess water left in the large intestine can lead to diarrhea.
Although most alcohol gets metabolized in the liver, some of it is metabolized in the GI tract due to the way alcohol travels through the bloodstream. The more alcohol you consume, the more your GI tract will come in contact with alcohol. The GI metabolizes alcohol by breaking it down into acetaldehyde, which is known to damage gut cells and cause chronic inflammation. While inflammation itself doesn’t cause diarrhea, it leads to the malfunctioning of the sodium pump in the gut. This increased secretion of water and sodium into the gut then causes diarrhea.
It’s also important to note that drinks with lower ethanol content, such as beer and wine, tend to increase gastric acid secretion, which further exacerbates inflammation and therefore diarrhea.
Reaction to alcoholic beverages
For some people, diarrhea is not actually caused by alcohol but by other products commonly consumed with alcohol, such as dairy, gluten, and fructose. If your gut can’t process these products properly, it’ll hold on to water. This results in diarrhea. Speaking with your medical provider can help you determine if you’re having a reaction to alcohol, or have an allergy to a product that is commonly consumed with alcohol.
Prolonged Alcohol-related Diarrhea
It’s possible to experience alcohol-related diarrhea for up to two weeks after you stop drinking. This is because of how alcohol damages the gut. Extended alcohol use can impair the absorption of nutrients, disrupt the way the gut contracts, and promote overgrowth of “bad” gut bacteria. Gut damages can also disrupt bile acid absorption and cause a malabsorption of important vitamins. All of these prolonged damages can cause someone to experience diarrhea even after they stop drinking.
While the process may be uncomfortable, the gut has an incredible ability to heal from these damages with time. If you’re experiencing prolonged diarrhea, it’s important to speak with a physician to discuss your symptoms and options for relief.
Risk Factors for Alcohol-Induced Diarrhea
The severity of alcohol-related diarrhea depends on how much alcohol is consumed and at what rate. Therefore, you’re at greater risk for alcohol-related diarrhea if you drink more heavily and frequently. Cutting back or stopping drinking can immediately reduce your chances of experiencing alcohol-related diarrhea.
If you have an underlying gastrointestinal condition, you are also at a higher chance of experiencing diarrhea after drinking. These conditions include Chron’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and celiac disease.
Lastly, frequently consuming high-carb drinks, such as beer, is another risk factor. These beverages don’t break down before reaching the large intestine so when the gut bacteria metabolizes these carbs, you may experience uncomfortable GI symptoms, including diarrhea. Some people are also allergic to a component of wine, which can also result in diarrhea.
Navigating the non-linear treatment journey
How Long Does Alcohol Diarrhea Last?
In most cases, alcohol-induced diarrhea will resolve on its own in 1 to 3 days. During this time, it’s crucial that you drink plenty of water and replenish your electrolytes. If you have other symptoms such as fever and chills, or if diarrhea does not resolve within a few days, you should seek medical attention immediately to determine the cause.
How to Prevent Diarrhea From Drinking Alcohol
Reduce or Eliminate Your Alcohol Consumption
The best way to avoid alcohol-induced diarrhea is, of course, not to drink alcohol. Because an unhealthy amount of alcohol is typically required to cause diarrhea, this symptom is often a sign you could benefit from changing your relationship with alcohol. If you’re struggling to manage your drinking, you may meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, which is a medical condition where you drink more than you want and for longer than you want, despite wanting to cut down.
The good news is, cutting back on alcohol can decrease physical side effects, such as diarrhea, and introduce countless other benefits of sobriety or moderation. There’s many tools and resources to help you get there. Evidence-based treatment options like medication to stop drinking, alcohol therapy, and peer support can help you change your drinking on your own terms.
Don’t Drink on an Empty Stomach
If you do decide to drink, eating before you consume alcohol can help prevent diarrhea. By having something to eat beforehand, less alcohol directly contacts the GI tract, which in turn reduces irritation. Furthermore, food delays alcohol from entering the intestine too quickly, giving your body more time to process alcohol.
Take Fiber Supplements
If you’re looking to proactively prevent alcohol-related diarrhea, you can try soluble fiber supplements. These supplements bind water in the large intestine and can help prevent or reduce diarrhea. You should consult your healthcare provider before taking supplements.
Treat Co-occurring Conditions
If you have an underlying disease or other medical condition that predisposes you to have diarrhea, seeking treatment will reduce the risk of suffering alcohol-induced diarrhea. The first step is to have a conversation with your physician.
How to Treat Alcohol-Induced Diarrhea
In most cases, alcohol-induced diarrhea doesn’t require medical treatment and resolves on its own in a few days. That said, anti-diarrhea medication can be helpful for some people. It’s also important to take good care of your physical health, particularly hydration and nutrition, when experiencing diarrhea. If you’re experiencing alcohol-induced diarrhea regularly, it’s recommended to connect with a physician to discuss your symptoms and create a plan to change your relationship with alcohol.
Does Quitting Drinking Cause Diarrhea?
Some people experience diarrhea when they stop drinking alcohol. This is because diarrhea can be a symptom of alcohol withdrawal. After an extended period of unhealthy alcohol use, the body adapts to alcohol’s depressive effect on the central nervous system. When alcohol is removed from the equation, the nervous system gets overly excited, which can cause various withdrawal responses such as faster heart rate, shakiness, and anxiety. This withdrawal reaction can also include the overstimulation of the gut, which results in diarrhea. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous and even life-threatening. If you think you’re experiencing withdrawal symptoms, please seek medical attention immediately.
If you believe you might be experiencing acute alcohol withdrawal, please contact your healthcare provider immediately and visit https://findtreatment.gov/ to find a location to get supervised detox near you. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.
If you experience alcohol-induced diarrhea, you are not alone and you deserve relief. Healing is within reach, and clinicians such as myself are here to help you explore how drinking less can lead to greater health and happiness.