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The Explosive Science Behind Stress Diarrhea

When we slip into a state of anxiety, everything in our body speeds up. Unfortunately, this includes our bowels

There’s no “good” way to get diarrhea, but stress-induced shitting has to be one of the worst. You already have so much crap on your plate, you literally don’t need more. So why do our bodies try to sabotage us like this?

Unfortunately, when we’re under stress, our sympathetic nervous systems activate, causing many other systems in our bodies to accelerate. And — much to our inconvenience — digestion is one of them. 

Consider it to be yet another way that anxiety, or being in a state of fight-or-flight, makes us totally fall apart. Because when we’re in that heightened mode, we experience a rush of adrenaline and cortisol that once would have helped us escape from predators. Now, it just sends us running to the bathroom in the middle of a meeting. So yes, you could say that survival mode is a bit of a shitstorm. 

To put it in a physiological perspective, this flood of stress hormones causes your body to produce extra water and salt, per registered dietitian Reda Elmardi. “These are two things that your body needs to flush out toxins, but if they get to be too much, then you could end up with diarrhea,” he explains.

In addition to the excess salt and water that function like Mother Nature’s own little laxative, stress hormones can also speed up the movement of the large intestine, making stress shits that much more likely. And though stress diarrhea can make you want to crawl into a non-stinky hole and die, you can take comfort in the sheer volume of tweets and Reddit posts on the topic and know you’re certainly not the first to desperately post to Quora from the toilet. 

Worse yet, if you perpetuate the stress, you’re only further headed downhill. That’s because stress also causes inflammation in the gut lining, which can lead to a domino effect of gastrointestinal issues like “bloating, cramping, gas, nausea and diarrhea,” Elmardi says. A growing body of research similarly suggests that chronic stress can lead to irritable bowel syndrome as well as constipation

As far as the silver lining that many people joke about online — i.e., feeling a little lighter when you finally exit the bathroom — I’m sorry to say that stress diarrhea won’t do much in terms of your waistline. In fact, beyond dealing with the bloat from all the gut irritation, prolonged stress is draining, which can make you less likely to hit the gym. On top of that, the cortisol released from stress has been found to suppress the hormone leptin, which regulates hunger and feelings of fullness. “So, when your body doesn’t receive enough leptin, it’s easier to eat more than normal,” Elmardi notes. Finally, numerous studies also indicate that stress increases sugar cravings. So, yeah, not great.

Luckily, you can — to some extent at least — triage stress diarrhea. First, remember to drink plenty of water and eat fiber-rich food, whole grains and fruits and vegetables. They will keep your bowels moving at a healthy pace without letting them go off the rails. And as much as having a drink may help you unwind, there’s a fine line between beer shits and stress shits, so it’s best to cut out that variable completely.

That means you might have to find other ways to manage your stress — a la exercise, meditation or masturbating — but at least they’re all better than spending your afternoon in the john.