Tips & Tricks

Bottoms Up! The Effects of Alcohol on Lymphedema

For many, alcohol is a part of life. But what about when a chronic health condition is a part of life, too?

Depending on where you live, drinking can be a big part of your cultural and social experience: it’s something we do when we’re celebrating a happy occasion, or coping with a tough time; it helps loosen us up when we’re socializing, or takes the edge off as we unwind after a long day.

For many, alcohol is simply a part of life. But what about when a chronic health condition is a part of life, too?

Living with lymphedema, we’re used to making adjustments to “regular” life in order to accommodate our health. We take everything into consideration, from the food we eat to the temperature of our bath water; it makes sense, then, that we take a look at the effects of alcohol consumption on our lymphedema.

Booze and you

From your very first sip, alcohol begins to take its effect on your body. It enters your bloodstream almost immediately through your stomach lining, and then continues to absorb more slowly through your stomach and intestines.

After a few drinks, you may start feeling warm and tingly. Part of that is due to the emotional warm fuzzies that result from the increased release of serotonin and endorphins in your brain, which intensify your mood and emotions. The physical sensation of being warm and tingly, however, is caused by your blood vessels expanding and dilating in a process called vasodilation. This increases the flow rate of lymph and the amount of fluid accumulating in your body’s tissues.

Alcohol has a diuretic effect, stimulating the kidneys to excrete more fluid. Coupled with vasodilation, this causes some trouble for us lymphies, as we’ve already got tissues saturated with excess lymph. Our compromised lymphatic system can’t keep up with removing the extra fluid, and this can result in increased swelling or feelings of heaviness in the affected parts of our body after a night of drinking.

Drinking too much alcohol can also weaken the immune system, making your body an easier target for infection or disease. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, even just one night of drinking to the point of intoxication can slow your body’s ability to produce cytokines, which are chemical messengers produced by white blood cells to ward off infections. This can reduce your ability to fight off infections for up to 24 hours after getting drunk — something to consider for us lymphies, as we’re generally at a higher risk of infection than those with functional lymphatic systems.

The rate at which we process alcohol and feel its effects are dependent on a number of factors, such as gender, physiology, and plain ol’ genetics. Everyone’s a little different: some people with a high blood alcohol content may appear to be much more sober than they are, though their bodies are processing booze in the same way as those who are visibly intoxicated. With that in mind, it’s good to be aware of how alcohol affects you, especially as a person with lymphedema.

What you can do

Obviously the most surefire way to avoid alcohol’s negative effects is to abstain from it completely, or practice moderation. It’s a totally personal decision, but should you choose to drink, there are some things to keep in mind that will lessen your “lymphedema hangover” the next day:

  • Drink more water. Remember: alcohol is a diuretic, so when you’re drinking, you’re losing more liquid than you consume. Try to pace out your drinking by consuming water in between your alcoholic beverages. Upping your water intake during or after drinking will rehydrate your body, not to mention help you avoid a hangover in the morning!
  • Practice self-massage. Perform manual lymphatic drainage to alleviate your swelling and help clear toxins from your body after drinking. Elevating your affected limb is also super helpful in reducing swelling.
  • Wear your compression. It goes without saying that you should always strive to be compliant in wearing your compression garments, as they provide additional support for your lymphatic system. Wearing your compression may not prevent increased swelling from happening when you drink, but it may help keep things contained and lessen the overall effect.
  • Be mindful of your body. Keep an eye on how your body reacts to alcohol consumption: does your swelling worsen? Does your affected area feel heavier or more dense? Are you experiencing pain or discomfort? Depending on what you observe, you may want to consider adjusting your drinking habits. Your body will thank you!

Drinking alcohol is a personal choice. Whether you enjoy the occasional libation or like to party hearty, though, it’s important to know just how alcohol affects the lymphie body so whatever choice you make can be an informed one.

Do you notice a change in your lymphedema when you drink alcohol? How do you manage its effects?

11 comments on “Bottoms Up! The Effects of Alcohol on Lymphedema

  1. Hi Alexa!
    Firstly – thanks for all you do, I always look forward to your superbly written and informative pieces landing in my inbox.
    Now to the booze effect… it completely and utterly ruins my body. I swell all over, hands, feet, arms, face, and of course my lymphedema leg suffers too! So I largely avoid it at all costs but have the occasional blow out and pay the price for it! I’m grateful my university days were over before my lymphie days began – that would have been a tricky balance!
    I have however found that a proper MLD massage from a therapist before the drinking begins makes a big difference to how my body reacts to alcohol.

  2. I had never thought about this before. Thanks for the info!

  3. donna piller

    Hi Alexa, Good article on alcohol consumption. I was wondering if you have decided to participate in the clinical trial of Ubenimex? I don’t know if you are located close to one of the participating hospitals which would make it convenient or not. I am close to Palo Alto and Stanford and can consider participating because they are accepting patients who have Primary Lymphedema now.

    You might not care to say whether you’ve chosen to participate in the study and I would respect that.

    Thanks for your excellent work,

    Donna >

    • Hi, Donna,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

      Unfortunately, I’m not able to participate in the Ubenimex trial. I took the screening test but wasn’t eligible :( I signed up for updates on future studies, though, so hopefully I can participate in something in the future. I think that’s great you’re considering participating!! I hope you are able to — what a wonderful opportunity that would be, not just for yourself but for the patient community as a whole.

      Wishing you all the best!

      Be well,
      Alexa

  4. Great article! Personally I have realized my body reacts differently to different type of alcohol. For example, white wine will cause much more swelling than red. Gin, made from juniper berries which are diuretic, but mixed with tonic or sugary mixers is a blood sugar bomb. It’s always a good idea to have a glass of water in between glasses of an alcoholic drink.

  5. Phyllis

    An occasional short glass of Zinfandal seems to be OK, and takes the edge off the anxiety

  6. I suffer with secondary arm lymphedema. I only drink red wine – and I keep it to one or two small glasses. I have found with a lot of trials myself that a small glass of red wine actually gets my lymph moving. I’m not sure about super over-indulging as I really don’t do it. What makes my arm swell the most is any kind of sports drink with electrolytes.

    • Alison Jefferies

      Sports drinks like Gatorade have sodium. My doctor recommends a low sodium diet around 1000-1200mg/day of sodium. Everyone needs sodium, so don’t eliminate it.

  7. Thanks for this. I’ve vaguely heard about the alcohol/lymphedema connection but not so directly. The most unhealthy part of my lifestyle is the fact that I like a glass or two of wine at dinner most nights – though I haven’t seen any specific impact on my lymphedema. Now I want to check it out! Will have to do some experimenting…

  8. Priyank Mehta

    Hi all,
    Great article , i had RPLND and lymph nodes have been taken out from my abdominal . The fluid drain continued for 20 days and has stopped from a week now and i am thinking of some moderate consumption of beer . Hope it does not trigger the lymph fluid again . Will share my experience .

  9. I have lymphedema in my lower jaw which was totally replaced due to oral cancer. I have a couple of drinks everyday because don’t want to increase my pain meds.

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