The human body is hardwired to react to stress – stress causes the “fight or flight” response that keeps us safe from predators. When we feel stress or anxiety, our nervous system releases a flood of hormones that prepare the body to either battle our enemies or run for our lives. These hormones increase our blood pressure to deliver more oxygen-rich blood to our muscles, increase the size of the pupils of our eyes so that we can see better, and make us more aware and observant.
The hormones associated with stress and anxiety can also affect our digestive system. When under stress, many people experience a change in bowel habits, especially diarrhea.
Understanding how stress and anxiety affect your gut can help you avoid diarrhea and other types of stomach upset when you are under pressure.
Stress and Diarrhea
Diarrhea is common. In fact, adults in the United States experience acute diarrhea once a year on average. Doctors define diarrhea as loose or watery stools, accompanied by abdominal cramps and frequent bowel movements. Mild cases last a day or two; acute cases of diarrhea can last for 3 weeks. Chronic diarrhea can persist for a month or longer.
Diarrhea may develop as the result of unfamiliar or especially rich foods, or from a stomach virus. It can also be a symptom of stress and anxiety.
One stress hormone, in particular, cortisol, affects your gut when you are under pressure. Stress causes cortisol levels to rise; increasing cortisol levels decrease the flow of blood and oxygen to your stomach, for example, causing sudden stomach cramps. High cortisol levels can also cause inflammation of your digestive tract and throw off the balance between the beneficial and harmful bacteria that live in your digestive tract.
Stress can also affect the muscles of your intestines, which prevents your bowels from filtering out harmful gut bacteria. Your immune system then comes to the rescue with extra fluids to flush the harmful bacteria out. Once the stress subsides, your muscles relax, your bowels begin filtering correctly and your immune system stops the inflammatory process.
If the stress does not go away, however, your intestines continue doing a poor job of filtering out harmful bacteria and your immune system sends even more fluid to your bowels. While all of this is happening, your brain sends a signal to your intestines to increase bowel movement in your large intestine – this can lead to a mild case of diarrhea. Chronic stress can lead to long-term digestive issues.
Treating Diarrhea Caused by Stress
Stress-related diarrhea is a symptom, not a disease. While you need to treat its underlying cause – stress – you will also need to slow
While diarrhea is a symptom of stress, it can cause dehydration. Diarrhea can also negatively affect the quality of your life. To treat stress-related diarrhea, you will need to address both diarrhea and the stress that causes it by:
- Changing your diet – avoid carbonated drinks, dairy products, and other foods that cause diarrhea; drink plenty of liquids to replace lost fluids and eat bland food
- Taking Imodium or other over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medicines
- Managing your stress – look back at what may have caused your stress and develop a plan to avoid these stressful triggers whenever possible; create time to reduce stress by relaxing, exercising, meditating, reading, listening to music and doing other things you enjoy
When to See a Doctor
If home treatments, dietary changes, and attempts to reduce stress do not help, consult with your doctor. The team of gastroenterologists at Northeast Digestive is always glad to help!
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