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Can Stress Cause Diarrhea? And How To Manage The Symptoms

July 13, 2020

Stress is often thought of as a mental health issue, but it can also have serious effects on physical health1. Research has shown that chronic stress is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease2 and heart attacks, and it can also wreak havoc on the digestive system. In some cases, it might even lead to diarrhea. 

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Why does stress cause diarrhea? 

From a physical standpoint, studies have shown that the body and the intestines will tense up3 under stress. That intestinal cramping can result in diarrhea. 

Another primary reason stress leads to digestive issues, including diarrhea, is the gut-brain axis4, which connects to the enteric nervous system. 

"Our stomach and intestines have their own unique nervous system called the enteric nervous system," holistic psychologist Nicole Lippman-Barile, Ph.D., tells mbg. "These nerves respond to the same stress hormones and neurotransmitters that our brains do." 

When the enteric nervous system absorbs stress hormones, it can affect the speed at which food moves through the digestive tract, resulting in either constipation or diarrhea. 

How long does it usually last? 

Stress-induced diarrhea will typically occur during or around stressful events. If the problem persists far beyond the stressful moment, or over the course of a couple of days, that could be a sign of more serious gastrointestinal issues. In this case, it's a good idea to consult with a doctor. 

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Can stress cause long-term digestive problems?

When under high stress, the immune system5 will send out signals to break down the gut lining, registered dietitian Ali Miller R.D., L.D., CDE, says. The resulting damage will then trigger a chronic stress response and can perpetuate further gut damage, she explains.

This is mostly problematic for people with preexisting gut issues, like leaky gut or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but it does not necessarily lead to chronic digestive problems. With proper stress management, stress-induced diarrhea can generally be managed.

How to treat stress-induced diarrhea: 

1.

Practice stress management. 

Reducing stress can help reduce the effects of stress-induced gut issues. "Engaging in regular moderate exercise such as walking, yoga, or swimming has proven stress-reducing benefits," functional medicine doctor Isaac Eliaz, M.D., M.S., LAc, says. High-quality sleep and meditation may also help. 

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2.

Take probiotics.

Probiotics, aka good gut bacteria, help support a healthy gut microbiome.* "Think of probiotics as your little helpers that restore order and help maintain harmony in your gut ecosystem," Vincent Pedre, M.D., tells mbg. Taking a probiotic supplement supports a healthy amount of the beneficial bugs in your gut, which can help manage digestive issues, including bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.*

Along with promoting healthy digestion, probiotics have also been shown to improve mood and manage symptoms of depression, which may play a role in stress management.* 

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Bottom line.

Stress can manifest in a lot of ways, and because of the gut-brain connection, diarrhea may be one of them. With proper stress management and gut-friendly habits, these issues can typically be managed at home. If the problems persist, it's a good idea to consult a doctor.