Can Stress Cause Diarrhea? Understanding the Gut-Brain Connection

A man having diarrhea

A study of almost 5,000 people revealed that 74% of adults feel so overwhelmed by stress that they are unable to cope.

Both work and your personal life can trigger stress. Workplace pressure, intricate family dynamics, and parenting demands are frequent stressors in our daily lives.

In some cases, stress can cause persistent diarrhea, which in itself can be very stressful. This can result in a vicious cycle of stress and diarrhea, which can be unpleasant and frustrating to deal with.

In this article, we’ll discuss how stress causes diarrhea and how you can manage your physical and mental symptoms.

What is Stress Diarrhea?

There is a strong connection between the brain and the gut, often referred to as the gut-brain axis (GBA). This connects your central nervous system, which consists of the brain and the spinal cord, to your intestinal nervous system — known as the enteric nervous system (ENS).

When you become stressed, certain neurotransmitters travel along the gut-brain axis, impacting how the gut handles stool.

These neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that impact the movement of water and electrolytes in the gut.

Chronic stress activates the sympathetic nervous system which triggers a fight or flight response and prepares the body to deal with stress.

Activation of this nervous system can lead to elevated heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. It can also result in decreased digestion, potentially leading to diarrhea.

During the body’s natural stress response, digestion slows down so that your body can redirect its resources toward a perceived threat.

While the activity in the gut and small intestine decreases, the colon’s activity increases. This can result in gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, including diarrhea.

Finally, emotional stress also causes the release of a hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF).

This hormone affects motility in the gastrointestinal tract, which means the time food takes to pass between the stomach and small intestine increases.

CRF also increases stool output and how fast it travels through the body. This causes the contents of the digestive system to move through the intestines faster than normal.

This makes it difficult for the intestines to absorb fluid from waste in the body, which can lead to watery or loose stools.

Symptoms of Stress Diarrhea

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), diarrhea is characterized by loose, watery stools. These stools occur more than three times a day.

Diarrhea is typically a result of an underlying issue, including chronic stress, rather than a condition itself.

Other than loose stools, people experiencing stress-induced diarrhea may also have the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal cramps and pain
  • A constant and urgent need to pass stool
  • Loss of bowel control
  • Nausea

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and stress

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a health condition that results in recurring episodes of abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation.

Stress can be a significant trigger for this syndrome due to its impact on the digestive system.

If you experience diarrhea and abdominal pain frequently as a result of stress, you may have IBS.

IBS is diagnosed using:

  • Blood tests
  • Fecal testing
  • Allergy testing
  • Imaging tests like a colonoscopy

How Long Does Stress-Induced Diarrhea Last?

Diarrhea typically lasts less than two days. This is called acute diarrhea, and it usually stops once the stressful event has passed.

Chronic diarrhea, on the other hand, can continue for four or more weeks if you’re experiencing chronic stress. This is long-term stress that doesn’t resolve once a stressful event has passed.

In this case, chronic diarrhea can involve abdominal pain and swelling, stools that contain blood or pus, and even weakness and confusion.

When to Seek Medical Treatment for Diarrhea

Having diarrhea for a few days is likely not anything to worry about and can be treated with OTC medications.

If you have severe or persistent diarrhea that doesn’t ease, even when you follow the advice above, you may need to see a healthcare provider.

You should also seek medical treatment if:

  • There is blood in your stools
  • You believe you are dehydrated
  • You have a fever over 102°F that lasts for more than three days
  • You experience severe abdominal pain

If your diarrhea is stress-induced, you may need to speak to a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, so that you can learn healthy coping mechanisms to deal with your stress and prevent it from impacting your gut.

Where Can I Learn More About Stress and Diarrhea?

If you want to know more about stress and diarrhea, LifeMD can help.

LifeMD can connect you to a team of medical professionals who can determine the best treatments for your diarrhea and provide support for chronic stress.

Make an appointment today to get started.

LifeMD makes it easy to stay on top of your health because talking to a doctor, filling your prescriptions, getting your labs done—and more—are all easy and cost-effective. Come discover a healthcare solution built around you and your life.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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