While many of us enjoy a tipple (or two or three!) in the evening or at the weekend, we are not always aware of the effect that it can have on our bodies. In addition to adding empty calories to our diet (and pounds to our physique), it can wreak havoc on our heart health, mental capacity and our liver’s functions.
While you might be familiar with the health detriments that alcohol can have on your heart, kidney and liver, you may not be aware of how bad it can be for your bladder and your bowels. Drinking alcohol regularly can cause a whole series of illnesses that affect your elimination processes.
In this guide, we detail the impact that alcohol can have on your bladder, bowels and your entire elimination system, even leading to incontinence.
Alcohol and The Bladder
Alcohol is a powerful diuretic, and this means that even a few drinks can increase your urine production, and the frequency at which you need to pass urine. You have likely experienced this at the pub after drinking a few pints! Your urge to use the toilet will probably ramp up pretty quickly.
Normally you empty your bladder 4 to 6 times per day, and you should be careful to empty it completely in order to prevent bladder and kidney infections. Ideally, you should drink enough water so that your urine is clear. However, when you drink alcohol, the excess urine production can lead to dehydration and much more concentrated urine. It is not uncommon for this urine to appear dark yellow, or even brown in colour.
Alcohol and urinary tract and kidney infections
What’s the problem with concentrated urine? It can wreak havoc on your urinary tract. Concentrated urine sits in the bladder, and it can cause irritation and inflammation in the lining of your bladder. You are far more likely to develop a urinary tract infection if your urine is concentrated, which can also spread to your kidneys.
Urinary tract infections (often called bladder infections) cause the urethra and bladder to spasm, leading to a burning and painful feeling, as well as the feeling that you need to empty your bladder (even when it is empty). You will also notice that your urine is cloudy, dark and smelly. These infections can also cause headaches, back pain, fever and general malaise.
Cystitis is one of the symptoms of a bladder infection and is causes the inflammation and swelling of the lining in your bladder. You might feel sharp pain, see blood in your urine, and experience increased urgency or frequency.
These issues can really damage your quality of life, and prevent you from travelling, socialising, and a healthy sexuality. The best prevention for urinary tract infections is to drink a lot of water and clear fluids; you should also avoid the excessive consumption of alcohol.
Alcohol and bladder control issues
- Increased frequency
If you suffer from any kind of bladder control issue, it is a good idea to watch your alcohol intake. Beer, wine, spirits and all other alcoholic beverages can act as a bladder stimulant, and ultimately lead to incontinence.
Your over stimulated bladder will make you need to urinate far more often than usual; for people with incontinence paired with other physical issues, they may not be able to make it to the toilet in time.
- Unintentional leakage
Although alcohol is defined as a “depressant,” most people who drink in moderation consume it more for relaxation and its stimulant effect. But this can become problematic when it comes to urinary incontinence, as alcohol can also lead to the relaxation of the bladder muscles, thereby possibly inducing unintentional leakage.
This can really be a problem if you usually get up in the night to use the toilet – if you have consumed a lot of alcohol and ‘passed out’ you likely won’t get the signal that wakes you. It is not uncommon for people with leakage problems to wet the bed if they go to bed after having many alcoholic drinks. If this is the case, the individual should certainly cut down on their drinking, and use incontinence pads when they do imbibe before bedtime.
- Impaired signals
Alcohol consumption can also cause the brain to send impaired signals to the rest of the body, confusing you as to when you need to go. This might mean that you think you need to use the toilet only to get there and find you don’t, but it is much more likely that you won’t get the warning you need to prevent an accident.
Alcohol and Your Bowels
Alcohol can cause either constipation or diarrhoea in different people, and sometimes one right after another for others!
Alcohol consumption and diarrhoea
Consuming alcohol can cause irritation and inflammation in the gut, which can in turn cause diarrhoea. Not only does diarrhoea make you feel exhausted and terrible, it can really damage your stomach lining and sap your body of important nutrients.
Alcohol irritates the delicate nature of your digestive tract, and can worsen your diarrhoea. It has been proven that this phenomenon most often occurs with wine, which can destroy the helpful bacteria found in the intestines. We’re not suggesting that you give up your beloved glass of red wine with a fine meal, but don’t overindulge on a regular basis.
Many people tend to find that alcohol affects them more when they have not eaten a solid meal, and this makes complete sense.
When you drink a beverage while eating food, the alcohol has a buffer. When the alcohol and food reaches your stomach, it is absorbed into your blood via the walls of your stomach. The food slows down the intoxicating effects of the alcohol. However, if you haven’t eaten any food with your alcohol, the booze travels immediately to your small intestine and then passes more quickly into your bloodstream. This is why you feel much more intoxicated at a much quicker rate.
After most or all of the alcohol has been absorbed into the bloodstream, you will then excrete the rest through defecation and urination. When you defecate, your colon muscles move and spasm (peristalsis) in order to push the stool from the body. Alcohol causes these contractions to speed up, preventing your colon from absorbing water, resulting in watery diarrhoea.
Alcohol consumption and constipation
By now, you might assume that alcohol causes only diarrhoea, but it can also do the exact opposite. As you already know, alcohol can cause dehydration, slowing down your bowel motility.
It can seem a bit confusing to understand why alcohol dehydrates you – after all, beer is mostly water! So is a tall vodka soda – so what gives?
Well, when you drink a beer (or any alcoholic beverage), you urinate and defecate out the amount of water in the beer, plus more. The alcohol messes with the water levels in your body, preventing your pituitary gland from producing ADH (Anti Diuretic Hormone), something that prevents you from urinating. Alcohol stimulates your kidneys to produce even more urine, and you get dehydrated.
We have already mentioned the contractions in your small intestine and bowel that cause you to have a bowel movement. Peristalsis is necessary in order to effectively propel food through the digestive track. As alcohol is a depressant, it dampens the nerves needed to cause the process to happen. Chronic drinkers will find that they will experience constipation far more often than those who avoid overconsumption.
When you are drinking you are often more tempted to treat yourself with fatty fried foods, high carb meals and decadent sweets – all of which can lead to constipation (and/or diarrhoea) on their own. If you are planning to have a few drinks, make sure you eat a healthy meal beforehand. A stomach full of wholesome food will prevent the alcohol from absorbing too quickly into your bloodstream. Ideally, it will also prevent you from pigging out on junk food!
- The bacteria in our gut
Our gut bacteria may be miniscule, but they are incredibly important when it comes to how you look and feel. While some alcohol can have positive effects on pathogenic bacteria (wine can combat and kill H. pylori, it also destroys the positive bacteria as well. Without a solid amount of good bacteria, you end up with gut problems, soft tissue inflammation and poor digestion. Even a small amount of alcohol can throw these levels off, and lead to chronic constipation.
Alcohol and Bowel Conditions
For those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s Disease or ulcers, alcohol can cause a huge uptick in symptoms. Alcohol is particularly nasty for people with diarrhoea caused by IBS, and it can trigger an attack that can last for days. The body views the alcohol as a caustic substance, and for those with IBS the results can be prolonged and painful.
In addition to causing problems for people with existing bowel and bladder problems, alcohol greatly increases one’s risk of developing bowel cancer. One of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the UK, almost 42,000 people were diagnosed with bowel cancer (also known as colorectal cancer) in 2014 alone.
While causes and factors that can lead to a diagnosis of bowel cancer are varied, increased alcohol consumption is one of the most commonly cited causes. If you are a heavy regular drinker, you are putting yourself at risk of cancer.
No one wants to end up with urinary or bowel incontinence. Not only can these conditions be embarrassing and messy, they can also decrease your self esteem and damage your emotional state. Whether you are prone to incontinence or simply want to prevent it from developing, it is a good idea to limit your alcohol consumption to a sensible amount.
Follow the NHS’s guidelines about safe amounts to imbibe, and speak to your GP if you have any concerns.