Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Constipation?

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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How Alcohol Withdrawal Affects Bowel Movements and Causes Constipation

Drinking alcohol is an everyday occurrence for millions of people in the U.S. While this substance is legal if you’re 21 years or older, it doesn’t take much for your body to become dependent on alcohol. You’ll know that you’re dependent on this beverage if you go through withdrawal symptoms after you stop drinking for six or more hours. While the symptoms vary, constipation and other bowel issues frequently occur. 

What Is an Alcohol Use Disorder?

An alcohol use disorder (AUD) can develop among people who drink frequently. When someone develops this condition, they’re oftentimes unable to stop drinking. Even if drinking alcohol begins to negatively impact the person’s everyday life, it’s unlikely that they’ll quit. 

Drinking too much alcohol can create changes to brain functions that make the body dependent on the substance. The condition often requires treatment for anyone who wants to learn how to control their symptoms and manage their cravings. AUD can range from mild to severe. Currently, nearly 15 million Americans who are at least 12 years old have AUD. 

Signs that You’re Drinking Too Much

If you drink too much alcohol, you’re at a higher risk of various health consequences, the primary of which include the following:

  • Dementia and other types of brain damage
  • Depression, despair, and suicide
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Breast, colon, or liver cancer
  • Injuries and accidents
  • DUIs and blackouts
  • Liver issues, including fatty liver, cirrhosis, and hepatitis

You might also start having problems with work, personal relationships, or money.

Side Effects of AUD

Once someone develops AUD, there are many different side effects they can experience when drinking alcohol, such as:

  • Drinking even when you know it causes harm to yourself or others
  • Blacking out after drinking a lot of alcohol
  • Drinking more than you intended
  • Experiencing negative emotions and feelings when you aren’t drinking
  • Regular hangovers
  • Having persistent cravings for alcohol
  • Giving up hobbies and other activities to drink
  • Needing to consume more alcohol for the usual effects
  • Constantly thinking about drinking alcohol
  • Being unable to stop drinking

Causes of AUD

When someone drinks too much alcohol, they’re at a higher risk of AUD than people who don’t drink often. However, there are other factors that increase the likelihood, which include everything from traumatic childhood events to genetics. You’re also more likely to suffer from AUD if you:

  • Have received stomach bypass surgery to resolve weight problems
  • Suffer from anxiety, grief, depression, or other mental health issues
  • Have a long family history of AUD
  • Regularly drink too much

Possible Withdrawal Symptoms

If you attempt to stop drinking after your body has become dependent on alcohol, you might experience withdrawal symptoms, which include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Nausea
  • Racing heart
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tremors
  • Shakiness
  • Coma
  • Delirium tremens
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Death

Impact of Alcohol Withdrawal on Bowel Movements

When you drink a lot of alcohol, the substance can affect your mood, brain, and digestive tract. The same is true with the withdrawal symptoms you go through after you stop drinking. 

Constipation

Even if you only drink a moderate amount of alcohol, you could develop constipation. When you drink alcohol, it’s more difficult for your body to release vasopressin, which is a type of hormone that makes it possible for your body to keep water from exiting when you urinate. If your body doesn’t release as much vasopressin as usual, you’ll need to urinate more often, which can lead to you becoming dehydrated and constipated. 

However, constipation isn’t only caused by drinking too much alcohol. If you drink specific types of alcohol, you’re more likely to experience constipation. For example, let’s say you consume a drink that has 20% or more alcohol content. In this scenario, your gut muscles may slow down, which makes it more difficult for food to be pushed through. Keep in mind that a can of beer only has alcohol content of around 5%. On the other hand, 1.5 ounces of gin or tequila can contain around 40% alcohol. 

Drinking water and other fluids can help you avoid constipation. Since withdrawal starts within four to six hours after you stop drinking, these symptoms can appear to be part of the withdrawal process and may last for hours. If you experience constipation during the withdrawal process, focus on becoming hydrated. 

Flareups of Existing Health Conditions

If you have AUD and go through withdrawal, drinking alcohol might also result in flareups of any existing bowel conditions you have. For example, people who have been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis or some other inflammatory bowel disease can experience a flareup during withdrawal that leads to everything from blood in the stool to cramping.

Diarrhea

Diarrhea is a common symptom among those who drink heavily and go through withdrawal. There are a couple reasons why this is the case, the primary of which is because you drink too much in a short period of time. When you consume a lot of alcohol, your intestines release more water, which leads to issues like diarrhea. It’s also possible that contractions will occur at a faster rate within your colon, which means that waste is pushed through more rapidly than usual. 

Color Changes

During alcohol withdrawal, you might notice color changes to your bowel movements. In most cases, bowel movements are light or dark brown. If, however, they turn blue or red, it’s possible that the alcohol you’ve consumed recently is the cause of this problem. 

How AUD Is Diagnosed

Before you experience withdrawal, you may be diagnosed with AUD. Nearly everyone who has AUD goes through withdrawal. There are many techniques doctors use to determine if someone has AUD or is simply drinking a little too much alcohol. For example, doctors often start examinations by asking questions pertaining to the client’s drinking habits. They might also ask their clients if they can speak with any friends or family members. 

During the physical exam, your doctor might ask numerous health-related questions because of the physical signs and symptoms that often occur alongside AUD and withdrawal. If the diagnosis is proving difficult to make, your doctor may order a series of imaging and lab tests. These tests help to identify patterns that suggest AUD. 

The final stage of diagnosis involves a psychological assessment, which includes questions about behavioral patterns, thoughts, feelings, and symptoms. These questions may be asked in the form of a written questionnaire. 

Treatment Options to Consider

There are numerous treatments that can be administered to people who suffer from AUD and withdrawal, the primary of which include behavioral therapies, medications, and support groups. Before you receive any of these treatments, you may go through a process known as medical detoxification, which is often available as part of outpatient and inpatient treatment programs. 

Detox is a process that’s designed to help clients get through the withdrawal symptoms they experience. After you stop drinking, you may notice withdrawal symptoms just four to six hours after your last drink. Once these symptoms start, they can get worse for the next 60-70 hours, after which they may dissipate. When you attend a treatment program that offers medical detox, healthcare professionals will supervise this process to make sure that any serious symptoms are mitigated. 

Once you complete detox, the specific treatments you receive depend on the severity of your AUD and the stage of recovery you’re in. The main treatments available to you include intensive inpatient rehab at a hospital, residential rehab at a facility, intensive outpatient treatment, and standard outpatient treatment. 

Before treatment begins, you may sit down with specialists to create a comprehensive program that includes behavioral therapy, goal setting, counseling, and aftercare sessions. During one-on-one or group psychological therapy, clients learn about AUD and how to manage their symptoms. Family therapy can also be administered. 

Among the more commonly used treatments involves administering small doses of specific oral medications. These medications can keep serious side effects at bay and prevent a relapse. For example, a drug known as disulfiram can cause side effects like vomiting and nausea whenever you drink, which makes a relapse less likely. You might also receive naltrexone, which is a type of medication that effectively reduces your cravings for alcohol. 

Once the primary treatment is finished, you can enter an aftercare program. The purpose of aftercare programs is to help people remain accountable to themselves and others. Individual counseling and support groups are available once you complete the initial stages of treatment. 

If you suffer from a mental health disorder like anxiety or depression, you may receive treatment for a co-occurring disorder, which means that you would be treated for AUD and the mental health disorder at the same time.

If you’re considering an inpatient or residential treatment program, keep in mind that they can provide you with everything from educational lectures and yoga therapy to group and individual counseling. There are many different types of healthcare professionals that can work in one of these facilities. 

Before you decide whether to enter an inpatient or outpatient treatment program, you should know how they differ from one another. Outpatient programs allow you to go to school or manage your work responsibilities while you attend treatment. In comparison, inpatient programs require clients to remain at the hospital or residential facility 24/7 until the treatment is finished. 

The main factor that determines the type of treatment program someone should enter is the severity of their AUD. If the disorder is relatively minor, outpatient treatment may be recommended. For severe cases of AUD, inpatient rehab is the common choice.

Withdrawal can cause everything from constipation to diarrhea depending on how often you drink and how your body reacts to alcohol. Regardless of which symptoms you’re experiencing, consider obtaining treatment in the form of outpatient or inpatient programs. You can also get in touch with the Alcohol Awareness hotline, which is available 24/7 and is designed to help people with AUD find the resources they need to manage their disorder and the symptoms that come with it. You can reach this hotline at (855) 955-0771.

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