Does Alcohol Affect Bowel Movements?

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Alcohol use influences more than your state of mind. In the short- and long-term, drinking can affect various organ systems and lead to chronic health issues. Gastrointestinal symptoms and disorders burden approximately two out of three Americans, with more than 100 million visits to healthcare providers annually. Alcohol is a significant aggravator of many GI symptoms. Whether it is an isolated instance of heavy drinking or frequent, habitual consumption, alcohol directly impacts your bowel movements and overall gut health.

If you are experiencing alcohol-related bowel complications, treatment is available to assist you on the path to total wellness. Guardian Recovery offers programs such as alcohol detox and nutrition therapy to treat the emotional and physical components of alcohol use.

Our treatment advisors are available 24/7 to answer any questions you have about our program model and specific therapies. Reach out today to discover how we can work with you on your journey to sobriety, and read on to learn more about the link between alcohol and bowel problems.

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How Does Alcohol Use Affect Bowel Movements?

Bowel movements occur when your digestive system has processed the food you have consumed and is ready to eliminate unnecessary waste products. While there is no strict definition of what constitutes a normal bowel movement, some parameters may help you understand which bowel movements are healthy and which are cause for concern.

People have between three bowel movements per day to three weekly, depending on what is typical for that individual. Stool should be soft – but formed – and certainly not painful to pass.

The Following Symptoms May Indicate a Digestive Problem:

  • Excessive gas.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Diarrhea or constipation.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Bloating.
  • Changes in stool color, such as black and tarry or pale and clay-like.
  • Blood with bowel movements.

Alcohol disrupts normal bowel movements, especially when consumed in large quantities. Drinking alters your nutritional status, hydration, and even the physiological process behind digestion itself.

Faster Contractions of the Large Intestine

The large intestine – or colon – accounts for approximately 20% of the digestive tract. It is responsible for water, electrolyte, and vitamin absorption, as well as contractions to transport stool to the rectum for passage. After the small intestine extracts available nutrients from food, the remaining mass of waste moves to the colon for final processing.

Alcohol produces more frequent contractions in the large intestine. Stool does not have enough time to be processed by the colon, so less water and electrolytes are removed than usual. While the intestinal contraction speed increases, the ability of smooth muscle to form and compact stool decreases. This activity leads to abdominal cramping and diarrhea.

Impaired Nutrient Absorption

Drinking reduces pancreatic enzyme release necessary for proper digestion. Some vitamins pass through the GI tract without being fully extracted if these digestive molecules are insufficient. Alcohol also damages the lining of the stomach and intestines, so available nutrients are only partially absorbed. Rapid transit time through the large intestine also inhibits the colon’s ability to absorb vitamins as it would under normal conditions.

Individuals with alcohol use disorder (AUD) who binge drink or chronically consume alcohol are prone to nutrient deficiencies such as folate, B6, B12, thiamine, magnesium, phosphate, and vitamin A.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a disorder of the lower digestive tract. The cause is largely unknown but linked to certain foods and psychological conditions. IBS can be characterized by constipation (IBS-C), diarrhea (IBS-D), or mixed symptoms (IBS-M). Hallmarks of this condition include abdominal pain, gas, and bloating, all of which are relieved with a bowel movement. People with IBS frequently note changes in bowel movement frequency and stool consistency.

Individuals with IBS-D are more likely to have worsening symptoms after binge drinking than those with the mixed or constipated type. Symptoms are usually worst the day after drinking and resolve with alcohol abstinence and the return to normal eating and drinking habits.

Diarrhea and Dehydration

Alcohol’s effects on the colon and kidneys promote dehydration after binge drinking. Because the large intestine is responsible for absorbing water from stool before a bowel movement, faster contractions result in less fluid uptake. Likewise, alcohol acts as a diuretic, leading to rapid excretion of water and valuable electrolytes before they can be absorbed.  The combination of diarrhea and frequent urination quickly leads to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances necessary for proper brain and muscle functioning.

Internal Bleeding

Alcohol stimulates stomach acid production and reduces the protective gastric mucus layer, making stomach tissue susceptible to gastritis and ulcers. Such conditions may ultimately reach the blood vessels of the stomach, causing them to rupture and bleed. Meanwhile, the liver produces most coagulation factors necessary for proper blood clotting. Alcohol is broken down through the liver and alters the organ’s ability to metabolize other substances. Excessive drinking leads to liver inflammation and scarring, a condition known as cirrhosis. A cirrhotic liver cannot produce sufficient clotting factors, further increasing the risk of  GI bleeding.

Bowel movements are a critical factor in identifying internal bleeds. Blood from the lower digestive tract will be bright red. On the other hand, blood from the upper GI tract, such as that found in the stomach and small intestine, will be dark brown or black. This type of stool, called melena, has a tarry appearance and consistency. If you drink heavily and frequently, it is crucial to be aware of the color and texture of your bowel movements, as this sign may be the only indicator of an internal bleed.

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Effects of Alcohol on the GI Tract

Although drinking affects the large intestine and bowel movements, the troublesome and dangerous consequences of alcohol use extend along the entire GI tract.

Some Effects of Alcohol on the GI Tract Include:

  • Worsening or development of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and gastritis.
  • Stomach and upper intestinal ulcers.
  • Esophageal varices – enlarged veins along the esophagus prone to rupture and bleeding.
  • Delayed gastric emptying.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) flares.
  • Mouth, throat, esophageal, gastric, and colon cancers.

Ways to Lessen the Effects of Alcohol on the GI Tract

The best way to avoid GI dysfunction from alcohol is to limit alcohol intake to two to three beverages per day or to avoid alcohol altogether. To prevent bleeding, you should not drink when using blood thinners, NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen or aspirin), or cigarettes.

Maintaining a proper diet and exercise regimen will also go a long way in helping you have consistent, healthy bowel movements. Drinking plenty of water, eating the recommended amount of fiber, and limiting sweet or fatty junk food can offset the immediate or long-term effects of alcohol use on your digestion.

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Drinking more than recommended can wreak havoc on various parts of your body, from the brain to the digestive system. Despite the impact of alcohol on your bowel movements, many GI symptoms are reversible with prolonged abstinence. The benefits of quitting alcohol extend beyond physical health. With the proper therapeutic support and compassionate guidance, you can get the most out of your medical care and be on your way to the healthiest version of yourself.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use disorder, help is available 24/7 with Guardian Recovery. Contact us today to learn how our mission to offer personalized, comprehensive treatment can work for you. In addition to supplying a detailed list of services on your journey to health and wellness, we also provide a free, no-obligation health insurance benefit check. Reach out today to see how we can help.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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