Picture this: You’re about to give a big speech, or interview for your dream job, or race a marathon. But while you’re trying to focus on last-minute prep, you’re stuck in one place—the bathroom.
Unfortunately, this predicament is all too common. While heart palpitations and sweaty pits can very much be part of our body’s reaction to stressful moments, believe it or not, tummy troubles can be, too, which might make you wonder, Can stress cause diarrhea?
We’re here to give you the short and long answer. TL;DR: Yes, stress can cause loose stools—but it can do a whole lot more than that within the gastrointestinal tract.
If you’ve ever been so stressed that your stomach begins to toss and turn, as if your intestines were physically disturbed by your anxious feelings, you’re not alone. Stress and anxiety are triggers for uncomfortable and sudden bowel movements (aka nervous poops) and diarrhea, as well as other stomach issues like nausea and vomiting. Sound familiar? Keep reading to learn more about why this happens, and what you can do about it.
Does stress affect the GI tract?
If you’ve ever Googled “Can anxiety cause stomach issues?” we’ve got some intel you’re gonna want to read.
“In addition to causing diarrhea, stress can cause gas, bloating, pain, and constipation,” says Mahmoud Ghannoum, MSC, PhD, MBA, microbiome researcher and co-founder of BIOHM. “In fact, stress also worsens digestive symptoms in patients suffering from stomach ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).”
Suffice to say, if you’ve ever felt particularly bloated or gassy—or like you need to make a beeline to the restroom—during stressful situations, it’s most likely your nerves surrounding the situation, and not something you ate prior in the day.
Why does stress cause diarrhea?
As for exactly why stress can make you poop more, it comes down to the brain-gut axis, which can manifest in a few different ways.
“When you are stressed, your body releases extra corticotropin-releasing factor, a hypothalamic hormone, in the bowels,” says gastroenterologist Niket Sonpal, MD. “This hormone helps mediate your stress response, but while doing so, it also acts on the intestines, causing them to become inflamed.”
According to a small 2014 study, that same hormone may also increase permeability of the gut, which is the main feature of leaky gut. But, it’s also been identified in people who have IBS and inflammatory bowel disease—both of which are known to cause irregular poops.
The classic stress-related hormones are also part of the reason why you poop more. “Cortisol, adrenaline, and serotonin are all released in the brain during periods of heightened stress,” says Dr. Sonpal. “That raises the amount of serotonin in your gut, which can cause spasms in the colon.” Those spasms can translate directly into diarrhea by causing the contents of your bowels to move through your system faster than they should.
On the flip side, the hormonal response to stress can also slow digestion down (which can actually lead to just as uncomfortable bowel movements as when it moves at hyper-speed). Essentially, that same big release of adrenaline can cause the enteric nervous system—the nerves governing your gut function—to either slow or halt, leading to bloating and cramping, says Dr. Sonpal.
And speaking of the nervous system, your gut is also linked to your brain via the vagus nerve, which plays a role in maintaining its homeostasis, or general stability (read: saving you from out-of-nowhere poop emergencies). “The vagus nerve starts in the brain and supplies nerve fibers to the heart, diaphragm, and the gut, from the esophagus and stomach to the small and large bowels,” gastroenterologist Avanish Aggarwal, MD, previously told Well+Good. When that nerve is set off by stress or anxiety, your parasympathetic nervous system responds with an attempt to relax—which can trigger a particularly sudden urge to find a toilet.
How do you know if your diarrhea is caused by stress?
Since diarrhea (and the color of your poop) can be influenced by a number of factors, including viruses, food poisoning, and an aversion to dairy, it’s easy to misdiagnose the cause of loose, watery stools. That said, Dr. Ghannoum says that if you’re simultaneously experiencing diarrhea and a stressful life event, it’s likely that the two are connected.
Another way to determine if your diarrhea is the result of stress is to evaluate when it’s happening and when it stops, as well as what other symptoms are present. If you only have one episode and it’s directly before facing a challenging situation, stress is likely the cause. If, however, your diarrhea is accompanied by blood, weight loss, or pain, board-certified gastroenterologist Samantha Nazareth, MD, says that it could be a sign of something more serious. “Diarrhea caused by stress would not have these additional signs or symptoms,” she says.
How long does stress diarrhea last?
Generally speaking, stress diarrhea centers around an environmental or situational stressor. For example, if you have a big event coming up—or if you’re waiting for major news—it’s not unheard of for your bowels to overreact. That said, Dr. Ghannoum reveals that stress diarrhea should last no more than a day, two at most. “One to two days of diarrhea is fine, but having diarrhea for more than two days indicates that there may be a serious problem and you should consult your physician,” he says.
How do you stop diarrhea from stress?
To stop nervous poops from ruining your day, you might start with some deep breathing, which can help calm an overstimulated vagus nerve. And if you know that you’re generally a member of the stress-poop gang, Dr. Sonpal also recommends steering clear of sugary drinks, sodas, and anything else high in processed sugar, as all of the above are common inflammatory foods that can make you more susceptible to bloating and diarrhea from the get-go. “Minerals also get depleted during high periods of stress,” Dr. Sonpal adds, “so I suggest drinking water with electrolytes to help replenish those, as well.” (Need a recommendation? We love the convenience of Nuun Sport Effervescent Tablets, $12, and Liquid I.V. Hydration Multiplier Electrolyte Drink Mix, $17.)
If this happens to you often, Dr. Ghannoum says that adopting mind-body practices like regular yoga and meditation can help. Additionally, he recommends making sure your diet includes apple cider vinegar, since some studies show that it has antimicrobial properties and can aid in digestion, while also slowing the emptying process, which may give bowel movements a bit more time to harden before being expelled.
He also suggests making probiotics, like kefir and kombucha, part of your daily routine. Not only can probiotics help prevent diarrhea, they can help make it go away faster, too, research shows. What’s more, Dr. Ghannoum points out that probiotics have been shown to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression, so it can help neutralize the triggers that cause nervous poops in the first place.
Can stress cause diarrhea? Unfortunately, yes—anxiety diarrhea is a very real thing. “They call the gut the second brain for good reason,” Dr. Nazareth says. “It has more than 100 million nerve cells; there is also constant communication between the gut and brain.” With that level of ongoing correspondence, it’s no surprise that what happens in the mind affects the gut—and vice versa.
“We [are used to thinking] top-down (brain to gut axis), however, we should also start thinking bottom-up (gut to brain axis),” Dr. Ghannoum says. “In reality, the two opposite directions mutually affect and depend on each other and their purpose is to maintain homeostasis and protect the body against detrimental factors.”
With this in mind, he says that it’s important to make mealtime decisions with your mind, well, in mind. Since everything is circular—in that the gut affects the mind and the mind affects the gut—limiting foods that cause stress (such as sugar and fatty, fried foods) can in turn limit gut reactions to said stress. The result? Fewer instances of diarrhea from stress. (Hallelujah!)
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