Breaking the Seal Isn't a Real Thing
Why it doesn't matter when you decide to make the inevitable pee-spree.
Image: myLoupe/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images
The thought of not drinking during the parade had occurred to me.
After all, I was in New York, not my hometown of New Orleans, where drinking on the streets is legal and the to-go-cup is practically a birthright. Then again, I was participating in the city's annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade and every other scantily clad mermaid and merman seemed to be downing shots and clutching paper bag-covered beverages.
What hadn't occurred to me was the severity of the New York City Police Department's strict security measures and the virtually impenetrable parade route, which made for a pretty dire bathroom situation. Four hours later, my bladder was so full I looked more like a beached manatee than a svelte mermaid. When the parade finally disbanded, it was all I could do not to break out in a fevered dash for the boardwalk bathrooms.
"It's not a sprint, it's a marathon," is the common—and wise—adage offered to those grappling with their first Mardi Gras season and the requisite boozing that accompanies the festivities. But no matter how much one heeds that advice, Carnival is a multi-week affair, and by the time Fat Tuesday rolls around, most people have traded in good sense and moderation for excess and revelry.
Though it's no Coney Island lockdown, finding a bathroom during the Mardi Gras parades can still be tricky. Urinating in public is a jailable offense and I wouldn't wish the porta-potties lining the routes in the French Quarter on my worst enemy. If you're a New Orleans local, hopefully you've made some friends along the way with nearby homes and open-house bathroom policies, but if not, I wondered, was there some other way to combat alcohol's diuretic effects?
The short answer, it turns out, is no. Everyone knows that drinking anything in excessive amounts will cause a person to pee more, but adding booze to the equation tends to exacerbate that urge tenfold. This happens because, when you start drinking, the brain temporarily stops producing vasopressin, an antidiuretic hormone (ADH) that helps the kidneys manage the amount of water in your body.
"It's basically twofold," says Blaine S. Kristo, an urologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. "One, which is obvious, is that you're consuming liquids, so what goes in must come out. But with alcohol, you'll produce more urine than the liquid you've consumed."
There's not a lot you can do to affect or increase ADH levels, which help to prevent your body from losing water while keeping your blood pressure up and maintaining electrolytes. Taking ibuprofen before you head out to the festivities—an urban peeing-while-partying myth that stems from its potential urine retention side effects—won't do anything to help. And contrary to popular belief, "breaking the seal" has no effect on how much or frequently a person has to urinate, Kristo says.
"It's not that you've emptied your bladder," he says. "It's that by that point—let's say you're an hour or an hour and a half into drinking—suddenly your ADH levels have gone down, so your kidneys are producing a ton of urine."
So if you're going to hold it in, how long is too long?
"It's very relative to each person," Kristo says. "It depends on how much urine you're producing and how thick your bladder is—and everyone is going to be different. A good rule of thumb is obviously to listen to your body. If your bladder is that full and you're experiencing pain, the body is giving you pain for a reason, saying, 'you need to do something about this.' Certainly if you're in that situation, stop drinking—don't exacerbate the problem by continuing to take in fluids while your bladder is at its capacity."
What's more, consistently fighting your body's instinct to urinate can cause serious damage in the long run. "If you can get somewhere within 15 minutes or half an hour, your bladder won't explode," Kristo says. "But chronically holding your urine for long periods of time can actually stretch your bladder."
That stretching can eventually cause the bladder to scar, Kristo says, which can reduce its function as a pump, and in the long run can also cause it to shrink. It's a pretty gruesome rollercoaster.
"You see it commonly in people who have to hold their urine for long periods of time, like truck drivers," Kristo says. "Down the road the bladder becomes much smaller and they have to go more frequently because it's so stretched out…and it can't stretch anymore."
Holding it in also increases the chance of developing a urinary tract infection, as part of the bladder's function is to empty and flush out any unwanted bacteria that may try to creep in. "Bacteria are always trying to make it into the bladder. If you allow your bladder to sit full for long enough, it's basically like a petri dish," Kristo says.
So, barring the decision to—gasp—forgo drinking, what else can you do to combat a pee-spree while attending an all-day or night event?
While you're raging, stay away from drinks that might act as a bladder irritant or have additional diuretic properties—such as caffeinated teas or soft drinks (here's looking at you, Red Bull and vodka drinkers). And while it's not a failsafe solution, Kristo says choosing stronger drinks with less volume—say, sipping on tequila instead of a PBR—can help alleviate some of the pressure, since less liquid is produced.
"The alcohol is the same whether it's a glass of wine or a pint of beer or a shot—the only thing they can control is what they're consuming," Kristo says. "Just drinking cocktails or shots, you're consuming a lot less liquid than if you're consuming pints of beer."