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Alcohol and Health

Why Do My Feet Swell When I Drink?

July 4, 2023
13 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 4, 2023
13 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 4, 2023
13 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 4, 2023
13 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 4, 2023
13 min read

When you think about the odd ways your body responds to alcohol — headaches, face flushing, and the like — what happens to your feet might not be at the top of your list. And yet it’s a familiar scenario: you’re relaxing at home after a long day, maybe you’re catching up on a new Top Chef episode while sipping something with a little kick to it — maybe a craft beer, a glass of wine, or a zesty cocktail. But the next thing you know, your shoes are feeling a little tight, your feet are starting to resemble balloons, and you're left scratching your head, wondering, “Why in the world do my feet swell when I drink? And why do my legs hurt after drinking?”

It may not seem like the most glamorous of topics, but hey, when your feet are unhappy, it’s hard to ignore the discomfort. So let’s kick off our shoes, get comfy, and look into it further.

When Booze and Body Collide

A person experiencing swelling in the feet

The thing about alcohol is that it's not just a liquid we consume — it has profound effects on our body. It's a potent diuretic, encouraging our kidneys to produce more urine and leading to dehydration and swollen feet. Think of your kidneys like the bouncers of the hydration nightclub. When alcohol comes into play, the bouncers get a bit lax, letting more water out than they should.

But there’s more. Alcohol also decreases the production of an important hormone called vasopressin. Vasopressin's job is to tell your kidneys to reabsorb water rather than flush it out. When there's less vasopressin on duty, more water escapes into your urine. You might have noticed this when you “break the seal” during a night out.

Does Alcohol Cause Swelling?

Sure — diuretic, vasopressin, got to pee. But what’s that got to do with our feet? Specifically, why does drinking cause our feet to swell and our legs to hurt?

Alcohol and Edema

As our body gets dehydrated due to the diuretic effects of alcohol, it starts to send out SOS signals — “Help! We need to compensate for the lost liquid!” One way the body does this is by drawing water from our cells into our bloodstream to maintain blood pressure and keep vital organs working correctly. This is called fluid shift — the main cause of edema, or the collection of water in body tissues  — and swollen feet can be a sign that it’s happening.

The problem is, gravity isn’t selective. Fluid that is shifting downward due to gravity can pool in our feet and ankles, leading to swelling known as peripheral edema. In short, alcohol gets our fluids all confused, and they end up where they shouldn’t be: in our feet.

Swollen Feet and Heart Problems

While so far we have been focusing on foot swelling as a temporary discomfort caused mainly by dehydration, it’s crucial to keep in mind that swollen feet can be a sign of more serious health conditions, such as heart problems.

When the heart doesn't pump blood effectively, it can cause a condition called congestive heart failure. As the heart struggles, blood flow slows down, causing blood returning to the heart through the veins to back up.

This backup leads to an increase in pressure within the veins, pushing fluid out into the surrounding tissues, causing swelling, usually in the lower parts of the body like the legs, ankles, and feet. So if you have swollen feet and also experience symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue, rapid weight gain, and a persistent cough, it's a good idea to reach out to a healthcare professional ASAP — these may be signs of heart problems requiring immediate attention.

Swollen Feet and Liver Damage

Another thing to keep in mind is that swollen feet caused by drinking can be an indicator of liver damage. The liver is a powerhouse organ — it detoxifies harmful substances in the body, stores vitamins and iron, converts stored sugar to functional sugar when the body's sugar levels fall, and even helps produce blood proteins that aid in clotting. What a multitasker!

When the liver gets damaged through excessive alcohol consumption — or anything else, for that matter — it can't perform its functions as effectively. One of its jobs is to produce a protein called albumin. Albumin helps keep fluid in your bloodstream so it doesn't leak into other tissues. But when the liver is damaged and albumin production drops, this fluid can escape into surrounding tissues, causing swelling, or edema.

This fluid can accumulate in various parts of the body, but — because of gravity — it often ends up in the feet and ankles, causing them to swell. This is one way that our feet might be trying to tell us that our liver needs some help.

Liver damage can also cause fluid to accumulate in the abdominal cavity in a condition called ascites. If we’re experiencing foot and ankle swelling along with weight gain and swelling in the abdomen, these could be signs of severe liver disease, like cirrhosis — definitely not something we’d want to ignore.

(Don’t) Leave Me Breathless

Another condition to be aware of is pulmonary edema, which happens when fluid accumulates in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. It can be caused by heart conditions such as congestive heart failure, which happens when the heart struggles to pump blood effectively.

In such a scenario, increased pressure in the blood vessels of the lungs causes fluid to be pushed into the air sacs. This fluid prevents the lungs from filling with enough air, leading to shortness of breath.

While pulmonary edema itself might not directly cause swollen feet, its root cause — congestive heart failure — often does. So, the presence of swollen feet alongside symptoms such as difficulty breathing, extreme fatigue, or a rapid or irregular heartbeat should trigger an immediate call to your healthcare provider.

When To Worry

The bottom line? While the occasional swelling of feet or leg pain after a night of a bit too much drinking can be chalked up to alcohol's effects on the body, such as dehydration, persistent or severe swelling should never be ignored. If you have swollen feet accompanied by other worrying symptoms, it’s absolutely crucial to seek medical attention promptly. The earlier potential health problems are detected, the better they can be managed.

How To Prevent Swollen Feet After Drinking

How To Get Rid of Swollen Feet After Drinking

The great news is you have the power to control the impact alcohol has on your body. Reducing or even eliminating alcohol from your lifestyle can improve your health in countless ways, including preventing our feet from swelling when we drink. Here are some specific steps you can take:

  • Swap out alcoholic drinks. Try swapping out your alcoholic beverage for a non-alcoholic option. There are plenty of fun mocktail recipes that can give you the sense of treating yourself without the negative side effects.
  • Hydrate. Drink more water. This can counteract the dehydrating effects of alcohol and reduce the fluid shift that leads to swelling.
  • Limit your alcohol intake. Try to have several alcohol-free days each week. This will give your body a chance to recover and could significantly improve your overall health.
  • Get moving. Exercise can help improve your circulation, reducing the chances of fluid accumulating in your feet and ankles.
  • Elevate your feet. When you’re lounging around at home, try elevating your feet. This simple trick can help prevent fluid from pooling in your lower extremities.

Water Retention Tips

Last but not least, if you’re wondering how long alcohol-related water retention lasts, the answer is 24 to 48 hours, max. Give it a day or two, and you'll likely be back to your fabulous, non-puffy self.

As for ways to get rid of water retention after drinking alcohol, try these tips:

  • Eat potassium-rich foods. Foods like bananas, spinach, and sweet potatoes can help balance out sodium levels, reducing bloating.
  • Limit salt. Salty foods can exacerbate water retention. Keep an eye on your intake the day after drinking.
  • Consider herbal teas. Some herbal teas like dandelion or green tea can act as natural diuretics, helping your body let go of that extra water.
  • Rest up. Adequate sleep helps in the recovery process and reduces stress, another potential bloat culprit.

Summing Up

In the end, those puffy feet might be a nuisance, but they’re also your body’s way of saying “hey, maybe ease up a little.” Let’s give them a break and keep them — and you! — happy and healthy!

Thinking of Kicking Alcohol to the Curb To Stop Your Feet From Swelling — And More?

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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