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?

29 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,

  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.

  10. Julie Stout

    Hi all. I have not been diagnosed just yet. Go to my 1st oncologist appt on 11/02. My regular Dr is leaning towards lymphoma due to symptoms and swollen lymph nodes that do not hurt and feel like a bb. I experimented last night and this evening and had alcohol. My nodes are swelling. Hope our suspicion is wrong. Getting a little scared.

  11. Marj Berkheimer

    Thank you for this information.
    I definitely see a correlation with the heaviness in my breast after a partying night!

    • Hi. I have lymphadema in my breast and I can find almost no information about it and my oncologist is kinda clueless and just tells me lymphadema generally occurs in the arm. What do you do to keep the swelling down? Did you find a compression bra?

  12. Happy New Year to you Alexa and Cheers to your excellent articles that educate and inspire us all to be mindful of our condition !
    My leg feels tighter and heavier if I have more than 2 glass of wine. I do try to limit but sometimes the wine flows freely ! Cheers!


    Happy New Year to you Alexa and thank you for the Great articles that have educated and have helped all of us. I have Lymphedema in both of my legs because of cancer 38 years ago

  14. Thanks for this article. I have been dealing with genital lymphoedma for almost twenty years now. The first ten years, when I tried to go on living as I had been before (drinking, eating not great, not much exercise) were a nightmare – constant discomfort, worsening symptoms and cellulitis.

    The last ten, after giving up drinking, have been much, much better. I still have bad days of course but giving up alcohol completely has made a massive difference to me. I believe that the lack of alcohol is healthy for my body and mind, and has led to a generally much healthier lifestyle. I really recommend giving up booze if you can.

  15. Alexa, You are spot on. I have been experiencing lymph swelling in my legs for a couple of years, even upon drinking one beer. Today, I searched online for this phenomena and found your blog. I’ve had to quit drinking completely, and now I no longer suffer any painful, heavy swelling.

  16. Bianca Els

    Thanks for the article. I am in my 20s and have primary lymphedema in both my lower legs
    I have noticed how badly alchohol effects my entire body not just legs after a night of consuming alchohol.

  17. I hadn’t thought of the effect of the alcohol on my Lymphedema. I have primary Lymphedema in 4 limbs. Still trying to come to terms with it! Was diagnosed last year with it in my legs at 44, then they repeated the scan as some of the dye had escaped. Just been told 3 weeks ago that it’s in my arms & legs and I have venous disease. I am devastated!! It’s not majorally obvious at the moment but I am terrified of it getting worse!! I hate the swishy foot feeling!! I guess if we have trouble removing toxins from our bodies Alcohol won’t be good. I am a binge drinker in that I don’t go out for months then I go on a night out and have no cut off button. Your article is definitely good for thought. Sending love to the lymph family. Wendy x

  18. Jennifer Aurelius

    Just want to thank you so much as I was diagnosed earlier this year with lymphedema and I’m trying desperately how to figure out ways to manage it so that I don’t get another flare up because WOW that is some pain. You write very eloquently and I just wanted to thank you again. Keep up the great work!!

  19. Denise Roberts

    I have just been diagnosed with Lymphedema. I have had swollen feet before but nothing like this. I gave up drinking on March 22nd 2020 as the alcohol was controlling me and I was no longer in control of it. I can’t do moderation, so it had to be all or nothing. In my wisdom, I decided to go cold turkey. NOT a good idea, do not try this at home children. The first day I was completely petrified at the idea of never having another drink and was in a state of panic. Things got better very quickly and I was starting to wonder why I had not tried to kick the habit earlier.
    I had become very depressed and I was completely overwhelmed by life. I was socially distanced and generally like a zombie just watching TV and drinking and to be honest not doing much at all. Drink was my friend., only it really wasn’t. I really did not see much point in living. My brother, who lives with me, gave up drinking over 20 years ago and was very supportive as he had a real insight into just how difficult it is. But as I basically went from one extreme to the other he found it difficult to cope with me and our relationship deteriorated rapidly and we ended having out of control shouting matches most days. I have since found out, through my own research I was suffering severe withdrawal symptoms from alcohol. Luckily now he understands I was not doing it on purpose and I really could not control my emotions. He has been much more patient and our relationship is back on track and one area of major stress has been addressed. I felt better Thing-ings started to spiral out of control. Very extreme mood swings, insomnia, forgetfulness, confusion, hyperactivity, constantly losing things and I was completely overwhelmed. I felt incredibly guilty about the grief I have given my daughters and worried that I would never be able to make amends. I had asked my doctor to prescribe me a sedative ( Diazepam or similar) to help me through the difficult early days, but he refused and told me just to stick with the vitamins ( B and D ) he already prescribed for me. I really did feel I was going insane until, I found out the cause of my erratic behaviour, Diazepam or similar, would have made for a much calmer situation.
    After a multitude of blood tests, video appointments, consultations my Doctor announced it might be Lymphedema, which I knew barely anything about,but gave no info or showed any signs of empathy, given that I was pretty shell shocked by the news. I have been told by the doctor he is arranging appointment at a local Lymphdema Clinic. Given thatThat was a week ago and I have not heard anything. So back to research and I will start to plan my own maintenance. I have lost a lot of weight although I was eating twice as much. I am now doing light walks, but I was already underweight and my weight is still going down.
    So anyone out there willing to share experiences, give help and advice, I am desperate to learn the best ways of learning how to live with Lymphodema.

    Thanks Denise Roberts

    • Denise I hope you have found peace. I wasn’t a drinker since college days, then in 2016 got DVT clots in legs that traveled to my lungs and almost killed me. After facial reconstruction surgery following a car accident, I started dancing again and waititables. A year ago I was so happy and my daughter was so excited to have her mom back. Then I started having a cocktail after work, playing pool, and next thing you know, I gained 40 of the 90 lbs I lost—bot from eating, but because the blood clot had hardened in my vein and clogged the fluid from traveling. Now the lymphadema has taken over my life and I have no energy or will to get out of bed. Breathing is difficult. Leg wraps are huge and bulky. Alcohol is full of sugar which absolutely pushed the lymphadema from one leg after a long shift, to both legs, stomach and face. I’m still looking for a solution to the anxiety because even the medication doesn’t stop me from craving the sugar and quick relief from all the chaos going on in the world. Wishing you all the best!

  20. Darren Pritchard

    Thanks for your article I found it very interesting and informative.
    I haven’t had a drink in 2 days and I’ve been drinking much more than I should due to C19.
    I have noticed that my left armpit is slightly swollen and mild pain. Tenderish to touch.

    I have never had a test for hodgekins lymphoma, but I’m a little worried. I have had a blood test resently. Which came back normal and no sti’s.
    What do u suggest I do? A cat scan? Is there a way a doctor could tell if it was serious by touching my armpit.

    Would it be the alcohol coming out of me as said its only day 2 sober and I was drinking appropriately 10, 5% beers per day for the last 6 months with the occasional 2 days off per week.

    Thanks again for your article.

    • dont drink beer, stop drinking everyday… just drink socially a drink or 2 of a clear alcohol and your life will change… beer is the devil for some of us, dont know what it is but my life changed 180*

      • Clear alcohol is what ruined my health kick, so I don’t know if it’s different for everyone but I think it’s better to avoid it if you can’t control it. There are little clear bottles off 99 proof drinks that are all sugar. Worst thing to put in your body especially with lymphadema

        • Maria Snow

          As living with secondary in my arm post BC for 11 years, I wish I could say any dietary thing makes much of a difference including abstinence from alcohol. It doesn’t really. I am not drinking much these days but when I was drinking a lot of red wine and occasional tequila, it wasn’t any worse at all. I wish I could say different. Actually red wine while relaxing at home often caused a lymph flow out of my arm. I mainly avoid these days due to headaches. I dont eat any sugar really of any kind also because I think it is pure poison. I think I am doing better than 99% of LD sufferers. I run outside in 100+ degree weather and that moves it the most. Nothing any doctor or online post told me really was worth anything. Of course keeping weight low is crucial. I do tons of yoga to help with that.

  21. Pingback: One Day at a Time: What 10 Years Without Alcohol Taught Me about My Lymphedema

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: