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Doctors Break the Silence on Stress and Diarrhea: What They Want You to Know

No, it's not just your imagination! Doctors explain the stress-gut connection — and how to find relief

Sometimes just thinking about your to-do list, especially during hectic times like preparing for a family reunion or during the hustle and bustle of the holidays, can make your stomach flip. So if you’ve been anxious and are running to the bathroom with loose, watery stools, it’s natural to wonder, can stress cause diarrhea? For many of us, the answer is yes. Here, experts explain why stress is an under-the-radar trigger of GI upset. Plus they reveal how to get speedy, natural relief from diarrhea and share their simple, stress-busting tricks to thwart future flare ups.

How stress can cause diarrhea

Sure, you know that diarrhea can be triggered by eating something that doesn’t agree with you. But it turns out that stress is a common culprit, too. “In some people, stress could accelerate or alter the movement of contents in the intestine, which can lead to a change in stool consistency,” explains Andrea Shin, MD, a gastroenterologist with UCLA Health in Los Angeles, CA. “Stress can impact intestinal motor functions or activate the gut-brain axis.”

This two-way communication network, which consists of millions of nerves and neurons, connects your gut to your central nervous system. That’s why strong emotions like stress, anxiety, or excitement can give you the butterflies. It’s also why, for some people, stress “could be linked to changes in bowel functions or diarrhea,” Dr. Shin explains.

Knowing you’re prone to diarrhea when stressed can make you even more anxious, say researchers in a study in PLOS ONE, creating a vicious cycle. The good news: You don’t have to be prisoner to a roiling belly. The key is spotting — and stopping — stress diarrhea when it strikes, then ushering a little more calm into your life to ward off future trouble. (Click through to learn how toning your vagus nerve with cold water can calms stress instantly.)

A woman in jeans and a purple top on a green velvet couch who has stress-triggered diarrhea
Kinga Krzeminska/Getty

Related: How Long Are You Contagious With Norovirus? What to Know About the Highly Contagious GI Bug

How to tell if stress is the cause of your diarrhea

Diarrhea is marked by loose, watery stools that’s often accompanied by abdominal cramping, bloating and a feeling like you need to get to the bathroom ASAP. It’s often caused by a stomach bug, food poisoning, or an underlying condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

If you notice that the problem tends to hit when you’re anxious or tense, stress could be the cause of your diarrhea, says Shehzad Sheikh, MD, an associate professor of medicine in the division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at the University of North Caroline School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, NC. That’s especially true if your stomach tends to stop rumbling once the stressful situation has passed, he adds.

Anyone can get a case of stress diarrhea, but women are more likely to be affected. “It’s probably related to hormones, which can affect how pain is experienced,” explains Laurie Keefer, PhD, Director for Psychobehavioral Research within the Division of Gastroenterology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Chronic stress from responsibilities like caregiving can also factor in, she adds.

What’s more, you might notice that stress tends to hit your stomach more easily as you’ve gotten older. “For some women, changes in intestinal symptoms including bowel functions could be related to changing or declining hormones or the effects of menopause,” Dr. Shin says. She notes that the role hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, which fluctuate during menopause, play in bowel function is not yet completely understood. But “it’s possible these hormones could affect GI motility through effects on the smooth muscles or that they could regulate pain signaling.” (Interested in easy ways to keep stress in check? Click through for supplements that reduce cortisol, the stress hormone.)

When to see a doctor for diarrhea

It’s not a big deal if stress is the cause behind your diarrhea once in a while. But you should let your doctor know if these bouts of GI upset are happening frequently, and/or if diarrhea or other stomach symptoms are getting in the way of your usual activities. “You want to make sure the diarrhea isn’t related to an infection or a more serious condition like inflammatory bowel disease,” Dr. Sheikh says.  

Related: Is Your GI Upset IBS or IBD? Doctors Reveal How to Tell — And Which One Can Be Serious

5 easy remedies for “stress stomach”

If stress is the cause behind your diarrhea and you find yourself in need of fast, effective relief, these smart tricks can help.

1. Reach for peppermint

Peppermint oil has long been many folks’ go-to stomach soother. And a Johns Hopkins University review of 12 studies proves taking it in capsule form is a smart move, since eases a bout of abdominal pain and diarrhea. “Most studies have used enteric coated peppermint oil capsules at a dose of approximately 180 mg. taken 3 times daily,” Dr. Shin says. “It’s thought to act by relaxing the smooth muscles in the digestive tract, and it may have anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing effects.” One to try: Swanson Enteric Coated Peppermint Oil (Buy from Amazon, $12.68).

Tip: You may have heard that peppermint oil can be used as a preventative measure, too. But Dr. Shin says that it can have side effects like heartburn and dry mouth. For most people, she advises against taking it for preventative purposes alone. (Click through for how peppermint oil and other essential oils can help with weight loss.)

A sprig of peppermint, which can be used for diarrhea caused by stress
Kilito Chan/Getty

2. Supplement with psyllium

You might reach for a fiber or psyllium husk supplement when you’re constipated to make it easier to go. But psyllium husk, a form of soluble fiber, can help get a case of diarrhea under control, too. Psyllium husk works by absorbing water in your GI tract. So “if a person has watery stools or diarrhea, psyllium will make their stools bulkier and slow things down,” Dr. Sheikh explains. If they have constipation due to hard or dense stools, on the other hand, the psyllium will absorb water to make the stools softer and easier to pass.

(Bothered by bouts of constipation, too? Click through to learn how constipation can cause back pain, plus how to find relief.)

You can supplement with a psyllium husk tablet or with a powder that you stir into water or juice, says Dr. Sheikh. Just don’t take too much, since adding a lot of fiber to your diet at once can worsen GI symptoms. “My approach is to start with the lowest dose on the label and see how it impacts you. You should notice a difference within a few days,” he says. A powdered form to try: Metamucil Psyllium 4-in-1 Fiber Supplement (Buy from Amazon, $23.89).

3. Sip rice water

It may sound strange, but the cloudy liquid that’s left over after cooking a pot of rice can quell diarrhea. Why? It’s rich in starches that help bind loose stools and make them less watery. The simple home cure works so well that it reduces stool output by 36% within 24 hours, found a study in the BMJ. To make rice water at home, boil 1/2 cup of white or brown rice in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes. Then strain the liquid into a large jar or bottle and drink 1 cup two to three times per day. (Click through to learn how to use rice water to reverse thinning hair.)

A cup of rice water next to a bowl of rice, which can ease diarrhea

4. Take deep belly breaths

Stomach starting to rumble when you’re sitting in traffic or waiting in line? Slow, deep breathing calms your stomach (and your nerves) if you get the urge to go when there’s no bathroom around, Dr. Keefer says. She recommends inhaling slowly from your belly for a count of four, then exhaling slowly for a count of six several times. “Your body gets into fight or flight mode because you think you need to go to the bathroom,” Dr. Keefer explains. “Deep breathing slows down your GI tract and tells your body that there’s not actually an emergency here, which can buy you some time.” (Click through to learn how cyclic sighing eases stress, too.)

5. Try an OTC anti-diarrheal

Know you’re heading into a situation that’ll stress you out and upset your stomach? Take an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal before you feel trouble brewing. The med works by slowing the transit of stool through your colon. That means you won’t get hit with that gotta-go-now feeling. “Nine times out of 10 it works,” says Dr. Sheikh, who recommends following the dosing instructions on the label. One to try: Imodium Multi-Symptom Relief (Buy from Amazon, $14.28).

Tip: While Imodium is great in a pinch, you shouldn’t rely on it to get through stressful situations on a regular basis, Dr. Sheikh adds. In that case, “it’s better to treat the underlying stressor that’s causing the diarrhea,” he says.  

How to soothe stress to outsmart stress diarrhea

Learning how to quash stress helps you outsmart this sneaky cause of diarrhea to block future flare ups.

1. Zone in while doing dishes

Next time you’re washing up after dinner, try to focus on being in the moment. Notice the warmth of the water, the sparkle of the bubbles, and the soft scent of soap. This type of quick, mindful pause can slash anxiety up to 27%, found a Florida State University study.

Mindfulness, or simply stopping to pay attention to what’s going on around you, “helps ground you back into the present moment,” Dr. Keefer explains. “We know that when we stress, it’s often about things in the future or in the past. For that reason, mindfulness can be grounding.”

Related: This 5-Minute Mindfulness Meditation Will Break Your Worry Cycle

2. Phone a friend

“We tend to isolate ourselves when we’re stressed,” Dr. Keefer notes. “But we know social support influences that gut-brain connection and helps us build resilience.” That means it’ll be easier to handle hectic, stressful events in the future without getting bogged down by diarrhea. Even a 10-minute chat with a friend while you’re driving home or folding laundry can lighten your mood, suggests a University of Texas at Austin study.

Tip: If you can, meet up in person and enjoy a warm embrace. Click through to learn how many hugs you need a day to ease stress.

A grey-haired woman in a pink shirt talking to someone on the phone
Mike Kemp/Getty

3. Watch a funny video

To keep life’s daily stressors from overwhelming you, pull up an LOL-worthy clip of a silly puppy or a cute toddler. Watching something funny draws your attention away from worries, and the benefits are instant, suggests an Austrian study in Computers in Human Behavior Reports. Need a little inspiration when it comes to tickling your funny bone? Click through for funny dog videos and things kids say that will make you laugh.

For more ways to soothe common GI bothers:

Constipation Is A Sneaky Cause Of Back Pain — Try These Simple Home Cures

Does Coffee Hurt Your Stomach? How To Prevent It Without Giving Up Your Joe

If You Suffer From Bloating, Constipation and Blue Moods, This Yogurt Can Help

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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