Most people know that alcohol is diuretic and causes a host of unpleasant symptoms like hangovers and headaches. But did you know that alcohol-related dehydration can have serious health consequences?
Dehydration occurs when the body loses more fluids than it takes in, and alcohol can exacerbate this by increasing urine production and interfering with the body’s ability to retain water.
In this article, we will discuss the relationship between alcohol and dehydration, the negative effects of dehydration on the body, and practical tips for staying hydrated while consuming alcohol.
Alcohol and Dehydration
Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it causes your body to remove fluids from your blood through your renal system, including the kidneys, ureters, and bladder. This can lead to dehydration if you don’t drink enough fluids to replace what you’ve lost.
When you drink alcohol, your body produces more urine than usual. This is because alcohol suppresses the release of an antidiuretic hormone (ADH) that normally helps your body retain water. Without enough ADH, your kidneys produce more urine, which can lead to dehydration.
This effect is also known as “breaking the seal,” which is why you pee a lot more after a few drinks.
Interestingly, studies have shown that people over 50 overcome the suppression of ADH from alcohol more quickly than their younger counterparts.
Symptoms of Dehydration
Mild dehydration is the most common type of dehydration and can occur when you don’t drink enough fluids. The symptoms of mild dehydration include:
- Dry mouth and throat
- Dry or sticky mouth
- Dark yellow urine
Moderate dehydration occurs when you lose more fluids than you take in. The symptoms of moderate dehydration include:
- Extreme thirst
- Very dry mouth and throat
- Dark yellow urine or no urine output
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
Severe dehydration is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. The symptoms of severe dehydration include:
- Very dry mouth and throat
- No urine output or very dark yellow urine
- Very dry skin
- Sunken eyes
- Rapid heartbeat and breathing
- Chest or abdominal pain
If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. Dehydration can be dangerous and even life-threatening if left untreated.
Factors that Increase Alcohol-Related Dehydration
Several factors can impact alcohol’s dehydrating effects, including:
Type and amount of alcohol consumed:
Different types of alcohol have varying effects on the body’s hydration levels. Generally speaking, the higher the alcohol content of a drink, the more dehydrating it will be.
But just because a drink has a lower ABV (alcohol by volume), it doesn’t mean you have carte blanche to pound beers all night.
The amount of alcohol matters, too. The more you drink in a single setting, the more dehydrated you will become.
If you mix alcohol with caffeinated drinks (ex. rum and Coke), you’re also increasing your dehydration factor, as caffeine will make you pee more which leads to further dehydration.
The frequency and duration of drinking can also impact the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
For example, binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks in a two-hour time period for men and four or more drinks in the same time period for women, can lead to more significant dehydration than moderate drinking over an extended period.
Eating food before or during drinking can help slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, which can reduce its dehydrating effects. Additionally, foods with high water content, such as fruits and vegetables, can help counteract the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
So loading up on that veggie platter at cocktail hour is a good idea!
Other lifestyle factors:
Other lifestyle factors, such as exercise, climate, and medication use, can also impact alcohol’s dehydrating effects.
For example, exercising while drinking can lead to greater dehydration due to increased sweating. Similarly, taking certain medications, such as diuretics or antihistamines, can exacerbate alcohol’s dehydrating effects.
Overall, the dehydrating effects of alcohol can vary widely depending on a range of factors. It is essential to be aware of these factors and take steps to mitigate the risks.
Alcohol and Electrolyte Balance
Electrolytes are minerals in the body that help regulate fluid balance. Alcohol can disrupt electrolyte balance, which can contribute to dehydration. Specifically, alcohol can lower levels of potassium and magnesium, two important electrolytes. Low levels of electrolytes can lead to muscle cramps, weakness, and fatigue.
Alcohol and Urination
Alcohol can increase urine production, which can lead to dehydration. When the body is dehydrated, it tries to conserve water by producing less urine. However, alcohol can interfere with this process and cause the body to produce more urine than it needs to (breaking the seal). This can lead to dehydration and further electrolyte imbalances.
Short and Long-Term Risks of Alcohol-Induced Dehydration:
Feeling like your mouth is made of sandpaper, and you’re dying of thirst is no fun, but there are actually serious risks associated with alcohol-related dehydration.
Dehydration is a common cause of hangover symptoms, such as headache, nausea, and fatigue. It can also contribute to feelings of anxiousness and depressed mood the day after, also known as “hangxiety.”
Impaired cognitive function:
Dehydration can also impair cognitive function, including memory, attention, and decision-making abilities. Studies have shown that being dehydrated by just 2% can lead to impaired performance on tasks that require attention and psychomotor and short-term memory skills.
This can lead to impaired judgment and increased risk-taking behavior, such as driving while under the influence.
Negatively impacts physical performance:
If you’re an athlete or someone who likes to hit the gym to build muscle mass, you may want to reconsider your weekly happy hour consumption.
Dehydration can reduce muscle endurance and performance, making it more challenging to sustain physical activity for an extended period. This is because dehydration leads to a reduction in blood flow to muscles, limiting the delivery of oxygen and nutrients needed for muscle function.
It can also cause muscle cramps due to an imbalance of electrolytes in the body, such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium, which are essential for proper muscle function.
Lastly, dehydration can delay muscle recovery after physical activity. When muscles are dehydrated, they are more susceptible to damage and injury, which can lead to delayed recovery and increased muscle soreness.
For the men reading this, you might also be interested to learn about alcohol’s effect on testosterone levels.
Increased risk of heat stroke:
Dehydration can increase the risk of heat stroke, especially when combined with exposure to hot and humid environments, such as in a crowded bar or nightclub.
Alcohol consumption can also impair the body’s ability to regulate its temperature. This is because alcohol can affect the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls body temperature.
When the hypothalamus is impaired, it may not respond appropriately to changes in temperature, making it harder for the body to cool down when necessary.
Relatedly, alcohol consumption can also cause vasodilation, which is the widening of blood vessels. While this may initially cause a sensation of feeling cooler, it can actually increase the risk of heat stroke by impairing the body’s ability to constrict blood vessels and maintain blood pressure, which is necessary for proper thermoregulation.
Increased risk of accidents:
Dehydration can impair physical coordination and reaction time, leading to an increased risk of accidents, such as falls or injuries.
Dehydration can also cause fatigue and drowsiness, which can increase the risk of accidents, particularly when driving or operating heavy machinery. This is because dehydration can cause a decrease in blood volume and low blood pressure, which can lead to reduced blood flow to the brain, causing fatigue and drowsiness.
Alcohol-induced dehydration can also decrease reaction time, making it more challenging to respond quickly to unexpected situations, such as sudden stops while driving or avoiding obstacles.
Chronic dehydration due to alcohol consumption can lead to kidney damage and increase the risk of kidney stones and urinary tract infections.
It impairs your kidneys’ ability to filter blood and makes them work harder. Alcohol also causes hormonal imbalances that negatively affect kidney function.
Dehydration can also impact heart function, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke, especially in people with pre-existing heart conditions.
It’s no secret that alcohol ages your appearance. Its diuretic effects lead to wrinkled, gray, lackluster skin that can look swollen and puffy.
Preventing Dehydration from Alcohol
If you don’t want to deal with dehydration from alcohol, the best (and most obvious) preventative measure is not to drink alcohol.
It’s the only surefire way to avoid it.
But if you insist on having a drink or two, there are things you can do to mitigate the dehydrating effects of alcohol. They’re all pretty obvious. Remember that list of things that makes alcohol-related dehydration worse? Avoid those.
Here’s a breakdown.
Drink plenty of water:
Drinking water before, during, and after alcohol consumption can help prevent dehydration. Water can help replace lost fluids, maintain electrolyte balance, and aid kidney function.
Eat hydrating foods:
Consuming foods with high water content, such as fruits and vegetables, can help counteract the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
Avoid sugary and caffeinated drinks:
Sugary and caffeinated drinks can have diuretic effects similar to alcohol, leading to further dehydration. So don’t mix your alcohol with these or drink them between alcoholic beverages.
Drinking alcohol at a slower pace can reduce its dehydrating effects. Alternating alcoholic drinks with water or other non-alcoholic beverages can also help maintain hydration levels. Remember, the more you drink, the more dehydrated you’ll get. Slowing down can help.
Monitor alcohol intake:
Keeping track of alcohol intake and avoiding excessive drinking can help prevent dehydration and reduce the negative health effects of alcohol consumption.This is an important long-term strategy.
Remember, alcohol dehydration has both acute and chronic effects.
Reducing your alcohol consumption overhaul will help you avoid some of the bigger health risks from long-term dehydration and drinking.
Avoid drinking in hot or humid environments:
Drinking in hot or humid environments can increase the risk of dehydration and heat stroke. It is best to avoid excessive alcohol consumption in these conditions. That means taking it easy at the barbecue and paying close attention to your body when you’re outside and consuming alcohol.
The bottom line?
Alcohol will dehydrate you, which has adverse effects both in the short and long term. Want to avoid these side effects? Drink less or not at all. And if you need help with that, I’ve included some resources at the end of this article, including a quiz to help you assess your current drinking habits.
The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test assesses whether your drinking habits indicate a risk of alcohol dependence.
This test is for informational purposes only and is not a substitution for a diagnosis by a trained medical professional. If you score high on this test, it may be time to speak to your doctor about the next steps.