Life Management Center
Charleston South Carolina
Can Stress Cause Diarrhea: The Surprising Connection between Stress and Diarrhea
You’re sitting in a meeting, and you can feel the stress building. Your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty, and you just can’t seem to focus. Suddenly, you have to go to the bathroom. You might be wondering: can stress cause diarrhea? The answer is yes – stress can definitely cause diarrhea. In this blog post, we will discuss the connection between stress and diarrhea, as well as some of the ways that you can manage stress and prevent diarrhea.
- How does stress affect the body?
- What’s the link between stress and diarrhea?
- Who’s at risk for stress-induced diarrhea?
- What are other symptoms associated with stress?
- How do doctors treat diarrhea caused by stress?
- How to manage stress
- When to see a doctor
Stress: An Overview
Stress is a natural bodily reaction to pressure or a perceived threat. A little stress can be a good thing, as it can help motivate a person, focus the mind, and improve performance. However, excessive or chronic stress can affect a person’s psychological and physical health.
How does stress affect the body?
Doctors and researchers have discovered a clear correlation between mental stress and the consequences it has on the body. The human body is “wired” to respond to stress.
Your brain sends messages to your body via the sympathetic nervous system when you are worried. This is what fight-or-flight reaction means. Your heart beats faster, you become more alert, and your muscles tighten up in anticipation of action.
However, this reaction is designed to assist a person run from someone or something pursuing them, not to deal with everyday pressures like work, deadlines, family obligations, money, and so on.
Stress affects the body in a variety of ways, including the following:
– It can cause the heart rate to increase
– It can cause the release of cortisol, which is a stress hormone
– It can cause the body to release adrenaline
– It can cause the body to release digestive acids
– It can cause the body to become dehydrated
All of these effects can lead to problems such as diarrhea.
What’s the link between stress and diarrhea?
The link between stress and diarrhea is clear. Stressful situations can lead to intestinal cramping. And this can lead to diarrhea.
When a person is stressed, the body releases adrenaline and cortisol (source of fight or flight response). These hormones can cause the body to release digestive acids, which can lead to diarrhea. Additionally, stress can cause the body to become dehydrated, which can also lead to diarrhea.
The stomach and intestines have their own central nervous system, which can be considered separate from the rest of the body. This is referred to as the enteric nervous system by doctors. The neurological system reacts to the stress hormones released by the body.
Stress causes the enteric system to inhibit motility, or movement, in the stomach and small intestines, by releasing hormones. These hormones are known as corticotropin-releasing factors by doctors (CRF).
These same hormones, on the other hand, cause greater motility in the large intestine. This might be the body’s way of trying to get rid of possibly dangerous substances. However, it has the side effect of making you want to go to the toilet and may cause diarrhea.
Who’s at risk for stress-induced diarrhea?
If you almost always have to rush to the bathroom when you’re stressed, you might worry you have some underlying gut problem, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). However, that’s not always the case. Someone without diagnosable stomach problems can still experience stress-related diarrhea. They can even experience other digestive and kidney diseases if left untreated.
However, there is a chance that a nervous stomach would point toward bigger gut problems. If bowel changes can’t be attributed to bacteria, infection, inflammation, or another disease, doctors call it IBS (IBD, on the other hand, occurs when doctors can see inflammation or ulcerations in the colon or greater digestive tract). Irritable bowel syndrome isn’t very well understood, but researchers do believe it has something to do with a sensitive enteric nervous system.
What are other symptoms associated with stress?
People can experience the physical effects of stress in different ways. Some always experience an upset stomach, abdominal cramping, and irregular bowel movement. Others have different symptoms. In addition to diarrhea, stress can also cause the following symptoms:
- Muscle tension
- Chest pain
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in sex drive
- Trouble sleeping
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to see your doctor.
How do doctors treat diarrhea caused by stress?
There are several ways that a person can manage stress and prevent chronic diarrhea. Most treatments for stress diarrhea involve identifying and addressing underlying stressors:
- Avoid foods that can further contribute to diarrhea and digestive system irritability. Examples include spicy food, dairy products, carbonated drinks, and caffeinated beverages.
- Eat small amounts of plain carbohydrates. Eating bland carbohydrates, such as cooked rice and pasta, is a useful way of getting fluid into the body. Bland carbohydrates are also easily digestible.
- Recognize sources and signs of stress. If you experience an episode of diarrhea, reflect on what you were doing before the episode that triggered stress.
- Keep hydrated: When a person has diarrhea, their small intestine and colon do not absorb minerals and fluids as they should. This dysfunction can result in dehydration. People can boost their hydration by drinking plenty of water and consuming certain fruit juices and soups. Some fruit juices contain much-needed potassium, while soups can replace lost sodium.
- Set your goals. Define what’s important in your life. Assess if there are pursuits you’re putting time toward that aren’t as important. By eliminating these things, you can likely increase your relaxation time and reduce stress.
- Use any free time to engage in a relaxing activity. Examples include meditation, tai chi, journaling, yoga, listening to music, or reading.
How to manage stress
There are a number of ways that people can manage stress.
Chronic stress can cause serious health problems. However, there are lots of ways to manage stress and build up resilience to the triggers that cause it. People can often do this by:
- Identifying stress triggers: A person can use a journal to keep a record of their stress and the situations in which it occurs. Once a person has identified their stress triggers, they can take steps to deal with them.
- Taking small steps to reduce the impact of stress triggers: This may involve practicing a breathing exercise, counting slowly to 10, or taking a temporary break from the stressor.
- Practicing activities that reduce stress: Some people find that relaxation techniques, such as yoga or meditation, help to reduce stress. Others find that spending time outdoors in nature helps to calm them.
- Maintaining a healthful lifestyle: Exercise is another great way to manage stress. Exercise releases endorphins, which have mood-boosting effects. Living a healthy way of life includes eating healthfully, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.
- Avoiding quick fixes: Alcohol, tobacco, and other substances may temporarily mask the symptoms of stress, but they will cause more harm in the long term.
- Seeking support from family and friends: Talking through worries and concerns with others can help lighten a person’s mental load. It can also give the person an outside perspective on what is bothering them and how they might deal with it.
When to see a doctor
Most episodes of diarrhea are relatively harmless. However, severe or persistent diarrhea can sometimes indicate an underlying medical problem. People should visit a doctor if they experience any of the following:
- diarrhea episodes lasting for more than 2 days in adults and more than 24 hours in children
- signs of dehydration (headache, confusion or irritability, no tears when crying, dry mouth and tongue, sunken fontanelle in babies, etc.)
- severe abdominal pain
- stools containing blood or pus
- at-home treatments you have been trying aren’t working
If something feels out of the ordinary or is affecting your daily life, talk to your doctor. Solutions are available, and they can prevent this problem.
Stress is a normal bodily reaction to pressure or perceived threats. However, it can affect various aspects of a person’s health, including their digestion. Stress diarrhea usually improves soon after the stressful event that triggered it has passed. However, a person should see a doctor if they experience prolonged or repeated bouts of stress or stress-induced diarrhea. A doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, talking therapies, or medications to manage stress and prevent physical symptoms, including diarrhea.