Last summer I was nearly at my wit’s end with my gut problems. I couldn’t wear anything without looking 6 months pregnant. I felt like garbage all the time. I didn’t have my diagnosis yet, so I was blindly trying anything I could to sort out my symptoms on my own (do not recommend) because I was too embarrassed to make an appointment with my doctor (if this is you, don’t be embarrassed… Make the call!). Every few days I would weigh myself because I was convinced that I’d gained a few pounds and it wasn’t just bloating. (Of course that wouldn’t have explained all my other symptoms, but I was desperate for something—anything—to make sense.)
And then it hit me: alcohol.
Flashback to the year I lived in Spain. I worked part time and had 3 day weekends. I was 21, fresh out of college, and down to party nearly every weekend. Some nights I wouldn’t drink. I’d stay out late and go dancing, sure, but I wouldn’t always drink. The nights I did drink though, I would have a guaranteed bowel movement the next morning. It was usually urgent, accompanied by severe and painful cramps, and anywhere from a 5-7 on the old Bristol Stool Chart. I thought this was just a normal reaction to drinking because it always happened to me. (Funny what we tell ourselves is normal, huh?)
This flashback gave me an idea: maybe I can hack my gut and guarantee a poo every morning if I drink every night. I wasn’t planning to get wasted, just to have a glass of my favorite red after dinner. What could go wrong?
For a while it did seem to help. I would have not the most ideal poo the next day, but at least I wasn’t always constipated. After about a week of thinking I had pulled the ultimate con on my gut, things started to go downhill. I realized I was just trading constipation and bloating for diarrhea (and still bloating—not a single summer dress was worn that season). I began to question my gut hack.
So why did this seem like a genius scheme (at first) and what happens in your gut when you drink alcohol? Here’s a quick breakdown.
Alcohol is naturally an irritant and as we all know from middle school health class, alcohol can have some pretty negative effects on the body, especially if consumed in excess either chronically or acutely. (I won’t go into all that here, because this is about alcohol and IBS, not just alcohol in general.)
Alcohol is a stimulant, so it can increase motility (the speed at which your GI tract moves food through your digestive system). This is why it can cause cramping, urgent bowel movements, and diarrhea as your intestines are suddenly moving things through faster than normal. (It was this key feature that I thought I could use to my advantage. Alcohol—1, Me—0)
Alcohol is a diuretic which means it makes you urinate more frequently and can lead to dehydration. (Hello, hangover!) In case you didn’t know, staying properly hydrated is not only good for all your inner bits, but it is especially good for your gut to keep things moving properly.
Alcohol causes inflammation in the gut and could exacerbate or directly affect many GI disorders if consumed excessively over time, although there is still much to learn about the relationship between alcohol and IBS.
It wasn’t completely crazy to think I might be able to manipulate my body to get a desired outcome, but ultimately it was destined to fail because I wasn’t addressing the actual problem. Take it from me: Your gut cannot be outsmarted.