Can Stress And Anxiety Really Cause Diarrhoea?

You and your poop go way back, so it’s kinda jarring when your number-two experience is suddenly way different than usual. And, if it’s diarrhoea you’re having, it straight-up sucks.

When diarrhoea strikes out of nowhere, it’s only natural to wonder WTH is behind it. Sure, you’re probably well aware that stress and anxiety can cause some not-so-awesome side effects like trouble sleeping and stress eating, but… is diarrhoea one of them?

Yep, it can be — and you’re not the only one who develops a bad case of the poops when you’re frazzled. There aren’t any clear numbers on how often this happens to people, but it’s pretty common, says Dr. Ashkan Farhadi, a gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.

You probably have some questions about what, exactly, is behind this whole stress-diarrhoea link, given that diarrhoea probably isn’t something you open up about at happy hour (although if you do, more power to you). And you also have Qs about what you can do to put a stop to this whole thing, preferably ASAP.

Well, pull up a seat — on the toilet or elsewhere — because there’s some stuff you need to know about stress diarrhoea, plus what you can do to make it stop.

How exactly do stress and anxiety cause diarrhoea?

It’s all due to the fact that your brain and your gut are in regular communication, says Dr. Alicia Clark, author of Hack Your Anxiety. “There is a powerful gut-brain connection thanks to a bundle of nerve fibres and pathways that connect your brain and gut,” she explains. Those nerves can do a bunch of things, like help regulate your gut microbiome (a collection of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that help control digestion, among other things) and lead to issues like stress diarrhoea, she says.

“Scientists believe that the relationship between your gut and brain is strong and even bi-directional, meaning poor gut health can influence anxiety and mood, and anxiety and mood can influence gut health,” Clark says. That’s how you can end up feeling sick to your stomach when you’re upset or develop diarrhoea when you’re stressed. “Everything from butterflies, to nausea, to diarrhoea can be powerfully impacted by your mental and emotional states,” Clark says.

Usually, it’s more intense stress and anxiety that triggers diarrhoea, as opposed to when you’re just feeling stressed because you have a mound of laundry that won’t fold itself, says Dr. Tara Menon, a gastroenterologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. When intense stress strikes, it can trigger your body’s natural fight or flight response, she adds.

That can speed up the motility of your gut (e.g., its ability to move poop along in there), Dr. Farhadi says. As poop hangs out in your colon, water is sucked out, making your stools a little more solid. But, if your poop is cruising through your gut at a faster-than-normal rate, you can wind up with diarrhoea, Dr. Farhadi says.

How can I *stop* getting stress diarrhoea?

If you tend to poop your brains out when you’re frazzled, only to be fine once the stress is gone, it’s pretty safe to assume you’re dealing with stress diarrhoea, says Dr Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the Personology podcast from iHeartRadio. (If you don’t think stress/anxiety is behind your poop probs, check-in with you doctor to rule out any other underlying health conditions.)

But if you’re confident your stress is speeding things up in your gut, there are a few things you can do to stop it:

  • Try to minimize stress. Duh! But of course, sometimes there’s only so much you can do. But limiting the amount of stress you experience means less diarrhoea, Dr. Saltz says. It’s a win-win.
  • Figure out what’s behind all of this. Your normal way of coping when stress strikes is really the issue here. “Fixing the problem is about finding ways to manage the underlying anxiety that’s causing it,” Dr. Saltz says. Clark recommends trying to pinpoint your stress and anxiety, and figure out what you can do about it. She suggests asking yourself two major questions: what is my anxiety trying to tell me that I need to hear? and what can I do with my anxiety to solve it, that’s in my control? “The answers should help direct you toward solutions that will help free you from your anxiety,” Clark says.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Things like deep-breathing exercises or mindfulness can help your brain — and your stomach — chill out a bit, Dr. Menon says.
  • Give your diet the side-eye. “A well-balanced diet high in fibre, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can help,” says Dr. Menon. It’s also a good idea to limit alcohol and caffeine when you’re stressed out, she says, since both can make diarrhoea worse.

When should I see a doctor for stress diarrhoea?

If you have diarrhoea that comes on when you’re stressed and it doesn’t bother you, then there’s really no reason to see a doctor, Dr. Farhadi says. “That’s normal,” he adds. But if this happens to you a lot and it feels like it’s screwing up your ability to lead a normal life, it’s time to check in with a medical professional.

“It’s really about the frequency and severity of the problem,” Dr. Farhadi says. “If the diarrhoea is persistent, consistent, and has happened at least three times a week for the last 12 weeks, your doctor might suspect a medical condition like IBS-D.” IBS-D, in case you’re not familiar with it, is one of the three forms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). (The “-D” is for diarrhoea.)

IBS-D has several triggers, but stress is a big one, Dr. Menon notes. That said, having a lot of diarrhoea when you’re stressed could be a sign of other bowel conditions like inflammatory bowel disease or even a chronic food allergy, she points out. So, again, if your stress causes a lot of diarrhoea and it bothers you, it’s worth at least a conversation with your doctor to try to figure out what’s happening in there.

Keep in mind that your doctor might loop a therapist in at some point to help. “Lots of people with IBS find that they’re a whole lot better with treatment for anxiety,” Dr. Saltz says.

Overall, if you’re struggling with stress diarrhoea, know that you’re not the only one going through this and that it is possible to get help. After all, stress is stressful enough without having to run to the bathroom all the time.

This article was originally published on 

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