I’m no stranger to hearing my friends warn that I’m “breaking the seal” as I hurry to the bar bathroom. As someone who tends to drink a lot of water, I’m pretty used to constantly having to relieve myself. That need can feel even more urgent after adding alcohol to the mix. This raises the question: Is breaking the seal actually a thing, or is it a funny lie we tell ourselves—and our bladders?
“Breaking the seal” refers to the notion that if you pee after drinking alcohol, you’re breaking some kind of biological seal that will result in you needing to pee excessively for the rest of the night. (Thank you to the always handy Urban Dictionary for laying it out so clearly.) In contrast, the theory goes that if you drink the same amount of alcohol but don’t let yourself pee until the booze is out of your system, your urge to go won’t be nearly as strong.
The term “breaking the seal” has no basis in science.
There’s no such thing as a “seal” that you break when you pee for the first time after drinking alcohol, Benjamin Brucker, M.D., associate professor in the departments of urology and obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. But it can certainly feel that way. To understand why, let’s dive into how your body processes fluids.
After you drink something, your kidneys filter the liquid, producing the waste and excess fluid you know as pee, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Your urine goes through tubes called ureters to the bladder. Once your bladder fills up—usually holding about 1.5 to 2 cups of urine at a time—it sends a “hey, where’s the toilet?” signal to your brain. When you do actually let loose that stream, you’re emptying your bladder to make more room for more urine.
Notice that you didn’t see any mention of a “seal” or anything like it in that explanation. “There’s not really any seal, so to speak,” Dr. Brucker says.
But it is true that drinking alcohol can make you produce more pee.
It’s totally normal to feel like you’re kicking off a string of bathroom trips with that first pee break, Blaine Kristo, M.D., a urologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, tells SELF. And you really might have to pee a ton when you drink, but that’s not because a seal is involved.
Alcohol has a diuretic effect on the body, meaning that it causes increased urination. Although the relationship here isn’t fully understood, a lot of this seems to come down to the fact that alcohol suppresses a hormone in your body called vasopressin (also known as antidiuretic hormone). Vasopressin tells your kidneys to absorb less fluid from your bloodstream, meaning you don’t create as much pee. “By suppressing the release of vasopressin, alcohol causes excess urination,” George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, tells SELF.
Koob also points out that alcohol can irritate the bladder, which can contribute to excessive peeing in some people. This doesn’t happen to everyone, but if you have a condition like interstitial cystitis, which causes bladder pressure and frequent urination, it can be more of a problem.
Beyond that, your drinking habits might make you pee more. If you’re drinking a lot (or taking the smart step of alternating each alcoholic beverage with water), there’s the simple fact that you might be taking in more fluid in a shorter time period than usual.
You probably also give the fluid some time to build up in your system, leading to you feeling like a racehorse once you sit on the toilet. “The first time you go to the bathroom after [drinking], usually that’s happening after you’ve been there for a while and have been consuming a fair amount of liquid,” Dr. Brucker says. The thing is that this liquid doesn’t all become urine at once. Even as you pee, you might still be processing earlier drinks. “Your body is continuing to filter out that fluid,” Dr. Brucker explains.
All of these factors can make it seem you spend half of your drinking nights in the bathroom. Unless you’re peeing so much that you’re regularly surpassing the average urinary frequency (four to eight times a day), this is just an annoying fact of life, not something to worry about.
Don’t hold in your pee for fear of breaking a metaphorical seal.
To be clear, chances are extremely low that anything bad will happen if you ignore the call of nature here and there. Sometimes you just need to hear about how your friend’s latest Bumble date ended, and before you know it, the night has passed without a single bathroom trip.
However, regularly holding in your pee can theoretically put you at higher risk for urinary tract infections. The more you pee, the more you can flush out any bacteria lurking in your urinary tract, ready to wreak infectious havoc, the Mayo Clinic explains. Of course, some people can hold in their pee for a long time and be just fine, so a lot of your risk may depend on how UTI-prone you are.
There’s no way to curb alcohol-related peeing except for drinking less.
Not to be a buzzkill, but it’s true. “The best strategy for reducing excess urination as a result of drinking alcohol is to drink less alcohol,” Koob says.
OK, fine, you could try choosing drinks with urine output in mind, Dr. Brucker says, like by opting for a smaller cocktail over a huge one. Even then, at some point, what goes in must come out.