You can feel it coming. You’re out having a drink with friends, and as you sense a sneeze coming on, you instinctively clamp your thighs together, hoping to prevent urine leakage. And on your way to the nearest bathroom, you wonder if that margarita may be making your leaks worse. You’ve heard that alcohol and incontinence don’t mix, but what are the facts?
What causes incontinence?
Urinary incontinence is a broad term that essentially refers to a lack of bladder control. But there are different types of incontinence, each with varying causes.
- Stress urinary incontinence results from weak pelvic floor muscles, which control the urethra outlet. Childbirth, age, and injury can stretch or damage the pelvic floor muscles so they are too weak to stop urine flow. This means when you sneeze, cough, or exercise, the pressure put on the pelvic floor is too great and squeezes the bladder.
- Urge urinary incontinence describes when you have a strong urge to urinate and cannot control the flow, resulting in accidents. This condition is caused by an overactive nervous system that tells the bladder to squeeze before you’re ready to urinate.
- Mixed incontinence exists when you have both stress and urge urinary incontinence.
What’s the connection between alcohol and incontinence?
Even though alcohol does not directly cause urinary incontinence, it can exacerbate existing incontinence symptoms. Some links between alcohol and incontinence include:
- Alcohol can act as a diuretic, which means that it stimulates urine production. If the bladder is weak, this increased urine flow results in more leaks.
- Alcohol also acts as a depressant by subduing the area of your brain that tells your muscles to contract. Your pelvic floor consists of layers of muscles that support your bladder, and when these muscles don’t contract quickly, it’s more difficult to control urine flow.
- Some alcohol produces sugars, which act as an irritant and inflame the bladder. This irritation can lead to urinary tract infections and increased urination.
Does alcohol affect men and women differently?
There are two reasons why men and women metabolize alcohol at different rates: water and alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). Generally, women’s bodies contain less water, which means alcohol doesn’t get diluted as quickly as it does in men’s bodies. Women also tend to have less alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), the enzyme that breaks down alcohol.
Aging also decreases water content for both genders, so it takes less alcohol consumption to increase blood alcohol levels. As our blood alcohol levels rise, so does our need to urinate. And as mentioned, the sugars produced by some types of alcohol can irritate the bladder, increasing the risk of irritation and inflammation in both men and women.
How to prevent incontinence when drinking
If you’re prone to urinary incontinence, these are some steps you can take in order to minimize accidents.
- Hydrating with water before you drink alcohol dilutes the alcohol sugars that can irritate your bladder.
- Consume drinks with less alcohol content.
- Avoid drinks with high sugar content, again reducing the sugars that can aggravate the bladder.
- Avoid caffeine, which acts as a diuretic and increases urine production.
- Empty your bladder right before bed to minimize the overnight stress on your bladder.