Mind & Body

Is "Breaking the Seal" a Real Thing?

Alcohol clearly affects human behavior. Drinking can make people giggly, outgoing, or prone to putting their own twist on the Macarena. Alcohol affects people internally as well; it's common knowledge that it stresses the liver, and it seems to affect the bladder, too. A night of drinking is, to be blunt, a night of heavy peeing. That's just the way it is. Right?

What Is "Breaking the Seal"?

Wrong, according to some armchair physiologists (and Urban Dictionary). A night of drinking only means frequent restroom trips for people who "break the seal," or make their first bathroom run, early in the night. This sets their bladder's expectations all wrong, requiring it to be emptied every five minutes for the rest of the night. (For the sake of argument, let's say bladders can actually expect things and look often to the future.)

In other words, the longer you hold it on a night out, the less often you'll have to pee later on. Or so the argument goes.

Is it true? Well, it's definitely true that if you pee less ... you pee less. This probably makes "breaking the seal" feel like a thing. Scientifically, although the phenomenon hasn't been subjected to rigorous testing, doctors tend to think that's an illusion. Drinking heavily makes you need to pee more than usual, full stop. You can ignore nature's call, but drinking will still turn up its volume.

Inside a Tipsy Kidney

At a physiological level, drinking keeps your brain from producing arginine vasopressin, a hormone that helps you stay hydrated. Scientists refer to it as an ADH, or an antidiuretic hormone. Basically, it reminds your body, specifically your kidneys, not to pee out too much water. It helps your system reabsorb water and minimizes the quantity of urine sent downstream to your bladder. It's why you can hold it when you sleep: overnight, your body produces ADH so you don't constantly wake up to pee.

Drinking alcohol is basically the opposite of sleeping, though — it makes the body want to pee more than usual. Not only are you imbibing liquid, a surefire path to peeing in itself, but you're also lowering your ADH levels. The two factors reinforce each other and make you pee more than you drank.

"With alcohol, you'll produce more urine than the liquid you've consumed," Blaine S. Kristo, a urologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, told Vice.

In reality, the spike in urination popularly associated with "breaking the seal" happens because, at first-bathroom-break-of-the-night o'clock, your ADH levels have fallen and you're starting to feel the effects. Whether you go to the bathroom or hold it, you'll need to pee a lot more going forward.

(Carbonated drinks like beer and champagne exacerbate the feeling, too — they make you gassy, and gas can press on the bladder. Gross, but true.)

If you want to pee less when you're out on the town, you don't need to hold it; you need to limit your alcohol intake. Holding it is really just cutting off your nose to spite your face. If you're uncomfortable, that's the body's way of telling you to take action. So head to the restroom! We promise you won't be breaking any seals.

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For more answers to everyday science questions, check out "250 Answers to Questions You've Always Had About How Everyday Stuff Really Works" by Larry Scheckel. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice March 27, 2019

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