Can Stress Cause Diarrhea and Constipation?

If your poop has ever acted up when you’re feeling under pressure, you’ve probably suspected that stress diarrhea or stress constipation may be at fault. But can stress cause diarrhea and constipation, really? Unfortunately, yep—you’re not imagining it. “Many people have that experience where stress causes irregularity of their bowels,” Kyle Staller, M.D., MPH, a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF.

So yeah, it’s not just a coincidence. Stress diarrhea and constipation happen for a reason. Here’s what’s actually going on in your digestive system when you’re anxious, plus what you can do about it.

First, let’s talk about diarrhea and constipation in general.

We’ll get back to stress in a second. Even if you’ve occasionally experienced diarrhea, constipation, or both, do you actually know what’s going on in your body when it happens? As a reminder, your poop is essentially what’s left after your food has gone through your digestive tract, where your system absorbs the nutrients and fluids and leaves behind stool. When you have an abnormal bowel movement, such as diarrhea or constipation, it’s typically a result of something going haywire along the way, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

If you have diarrhea, there’s a good chance your food moved too quickly through your digestive system, meaning your body didn’t have enough time to absorb the fluids. As a result, you wind up with that loose, watery stool you know to be diarrhea. You might also deal with diarrhea when your digestive system produces extra fluid of its own. Either way, many things can cause your digestive system to act up in this way, from various viruses to certain medications, and as long as it goes away on its own in a few days, doctors aren’t super concerned about the exact cause, NIDDK says.

On the other hand, constipation—which the Mayo Clinic defines as infrequent bowel movements or having difficulty passing stool—often happens when your stool moves too slowly through the digestive tract, which causes it to get hard and dry. As you can imagine, that can make the poop hard to pass. No pun intended. Lots of things can slow things down in there, from blockages to conditions that affect hormones in your body.

So how does stress lead to diarrhea and constipation?

The main action may be happening in your digestive tract, but your brain and your gut are synced up more than you realize. There’s a reason you can feel stress in the pit of your stomach—your brain and gut talk back and forth nonstop, Dr. Staller says. “Your gastrointestinal tract has many nerves and is a nervous system organ, much like the brain,” he says. “The brain can impact what’s going on in the gastrointestinal tract, and vice versa.”

When you’re stressed, it actually causes spasms in your gut, Ashkan Farhadi, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center and director of Memorial Care Medical Group’s Digestive Disease Project in Fountain Valley, California, tells SELF. How those spasms impact what comes out of your body (or not) depends on where they happen, he says. If the spasms are widespread, your whole colon is contracting, everything will move along quickly, and you’ll experience diarrhea. However, if the spasms are only happening in one area, it can hold everything up and cause or aggravate constipation.

In Dr. Staller’s clinical experience, whether you get stress diarrhea or stress constipation will usually depend on your typical gut issues—if diarrhea tends to be an issue for you when you have poop problems, you’re more likely to have diarrhea when you’re tense or upset. The same is true for constipation. “Stress will push you toward your usual default,” Dr. Staller says.

Stress can also lead to diarrhea or constipation in indirect ways.

For example, picking up certain habits when you’re stressed could also cause poop problems, like stress-eating or drinking certain things. Maybe you stayed up late finishing a nerve-racking project, ordered some greasy takeout because you didn’t have time to make dinner, and then you relied on coffee to get you through the next day. All of that can spell trouble for your gut, especially if you’re already prone to poop issues from stress, Dr. Farhadi says. Stress stimulates your gut, but food does too, and certain foods can cause more stimulation than others. Coffee, tea, and chocolate, for example, are more likely to stimulate your gut, he says, thanks to their caffeine content. If your gut is already struggling, you could have even worse bathroom issues as a result.

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