Stress diarrhea is one of the many outcomes that stress can have on your body. In this article, we’ll review all the critical aspects of it.
In the following article, you’ll find all the frequently asked questions about this problem. Briefly, and simply put, in the words of a doctor. Questions like, what is stress and why stress causes diarrhea, so you understand all you need to know. So, keep reading, and you will end with all the necessary knowledge about stress diarrhea.
What is stress?
Stress is psychological and physiological (normal for your body) response to events. Stress triggers a reaction called the “fight or flight” response. When this response occurs, the hypothalamus, a small part of your brain, sets off a chemical alarm. Then, it releases stress hormones that go through your blood vessels and activate this response in your entire body. This is necessary and healthy; the body needs a stress response to deal with several situations.
For example, stress makes your heart rate and your blood pressure to go up. Your pupils dilate to see better, and your blood sugar goes up to have more energy available. At the same time, stress suppresses body functions that are not essential for survival at that moment. This includes the reproductive and digestive systems and the immune response.
On the other hand, if you have too much stress for a long time, it is a different story. For instance, if you happen to suffer from an anxiety disorder, you may experience chronic stress. Multiple studies are showing that chronic stress represents a significant risk factor for developing many other diseases.
Stress affects especially your cardiovascular system and the immune system. This results in a higher risk of developing high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as infections. Chronic stress can also result in infertility, gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms and disorders, skin problems, and obesity
Additional to all of the physical symptoms, stress can damage your mental health too. Chronic stress can rewire your brain and leaving you vulnerable to mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.
What’s the difference between stress and anxiety?
Stress, as you saw, is a normal body response to a particular and stressful event. It can be mostly characterized by a hormone release that produces typical body changes. Conversely, anxiety is a body response to stress itself, and it entails a persistent sensation of apprehension in the person.
Both of them are natural, but they could turn into disease if they persist over time, the responses are too intense or interfere with your life. For stress and anxiety, they would turn into chronic stress and anxiety disorders, respectively.
When it comes to how they affect your body, stress, and anxiety are not that different. Some anxiety body-harming mechanisms are the same as stress mechanisms and can affect your health in the same way. Although anxiety disorders could have many more symptoms, like a typical anxiety attack, it shares several mental and bodily symptoms with chronic stress.
The main difference is that stress usually results from an external stressor, and the trigger exists for a short period. On the other hand, anxiety is a condition characterized by excessive worries or apprehension feelings that persist even when the stressor that prompted the response is no longer there.
So, stress is normal and necessary; it responds to stressors that commonly originate from the outside. Still, if the stressor persists over time, it could generate chronic stress in a person. On the contrary, anxiety can turn into an anxiety disorder, a mental health disorder that can be triggered by stress. Something important about an anxiety disorder is that it persists, even if the stressor already disappeared.
Both chronic stress and anxiety disorders can get better with treatment, especially with therapy. Without treatment, the anxiety disorder can persist for months and negatively affect your physical and mental health.
Can stress and anxiety cause diarrhea?
Yes. Digestive issues are quite common in patients that suffer from anxiety and stress. In fact, stress is a significant risk factor for conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease (or, more specifically, ulcerative colitis).
One of the most common symptoms of these conditions is diarrhea. However, diarrhea can be a symptom of many diseases, so it is essential first to rule out a more common or life-threatening diagnosis.
What other GI symptoms can stress cause?
Along with diarrhea, other common symptoms can appear with stress.
The most common are:
- Stomach cramps or feeling upset stomach.
- Abdominal pain that gets better after defecation.
- Loss of appetite.
- Nauseous or even vomiting.
- Changes in your bowel habit: like periods of diarrhea with periods of constipation.
- Weight loss.
Why do you get diarrhea when stressed or stress diarrhea?
The reason for stress diarrhea is the connection between your gut and your brain. This is known as the gut-brain axis; it connects your central nervous system with your gut’s neurons.
Your gut is packed with millions of neurons; in fact, doctors call it Enteric Nervous System (ENS). They help regulate all the functions of your gut, including motility. This direct link between brain and gut makes your emotions affect your gut and vice versa.
When you are in a stressful situation, your brain releases chemical substances to your body, including your gut. This slows down the movement in your stomach and small intestine. This results in symptoms like stomach pain or the feeling of an upset stomach.
On the other side, these substances increase the movement of your colon, causing large bowel diarrhea. This primitive reaction was made to remove potentially harmful toxins from your body but results in diarrhea too.
Is loose stool considered diarrhea?
It is not that simple. The definition of diarrhea is a number of three or more loose or liquid stools in a day. It is also considered diarrhea when the stools are more frequent than usual for the individual. This definition takes into consideration both the consistency and frequency of bowel movements.
Importantly, this situation sources of the fact that the bowel habit is not the same for everyone. A person who normally goes to the bathroom three times a day shouldn’t consider those three depositions as diarrhea. Still, a single loose stool is not considered diarrhea unless the frequency is also altered. It is important to identify when people actually have diarrhea in order to recognize stress diarrhea afterward.
What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a GI tract functional disorder. It has three main characteristics: altered bowel habits, abdominal pain, and bloating. Functional disorder means that it happens in the absence of pathology or organic changes.
It is a rather common condition, with 10-20% of the population suffering from it. Also, there is about 1-2% of new cases diagnosed every year.
This disease is more common in teenagers and young adult women. In fact, women are two or three times more likely to develop IBS than men. The IBS symptoms are divided into its three main characteristics.
Altered bowel habit in IBS can have characteristics such as:
- Constipation: with hard and narrowed stools with infrequent and sometimes painful defecations.
- Diarrhea: usually appears as small, loose stools. Also, watery diarrhea can be preceded by an urgency to defecate and a higher number of defecations.
- The periods of diarrhea and constipation can alternate between them. Also, the urgency to defecate tends to appear after meals.
Abdominal pain in IBS also has its own characteristics, such as:
- Diffuse (not well localized) abdominal pain. When localized, it is common for it to affect the lower abdomen in the left portion.
- Pain can appear in acute episodes that usually get better after defecation. Meals may worsen or trigger the pain.
Some other IBS symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Clear or white mucus in the stools.
- Worsening of symptoms during the premenstrual period.
What causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
There is no unique cause for IBS. Doctors describe it more like a three-part complex that includes:
- Altered gastrointestinal tract motility: Alterations in bowel movements are the main reason for IBS. Depending on where the motility (movements) is affected, different symptoms may appear. For example, dysmotility in the colon is more likely to cause persistent diarrhea. On the other side, the upper digestive tract altered motility can cause both diarrhea and constipation. An accelerated movement causes faster digestion and acute episodes of acute diarrhea. And a slower bowel movement causes constipation.
- Organ hypersensitivity: Patients with IBS often have an increased perception of visceral pain. This hypersensitivity usually appears with quick distension, causing stomach cramps.
- Psychologic/Psychiatric issues: Patients with psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression are more likely to develop IBS. This results from the relation between the brain and the GI tract.
Moreover, some studies stated that some IBS patients could have microscopic inflammation in the intestine. This occurs especially in patients that suffered viral infections in the gut and afterward developed IBS (also known as post-infectious IBS).
There is another important factor in IBS, the alteration of intestinal bacteria. Normally, some bacteria live in your gut without causing any damage. However, when some of these bacteria overgrow, you can experience digestive problems. In IBS, this overgrowth is thought to be responsible for symptoms like bloating.
How is stress diarrhea diagnosed?
It can be a little hard to know you are suffering from stress-induced diarrhea. Whether you are experiencing acute diarrhea episodes or suffer from chronic diarrhea, you should see a doctor. Nevertheless, diarrhea is not the only reason to go to the doctor. If you experience constipation or changes in your bowel habit, you should also get medical attention.
There are many causes for diarrhea, so your doctor will probably rule out many conditions before getting to the diagnosis. Conditions like food poisoning, colitis, and colorectal cancer can cause changes in your bowel habit. This is why a visit to your doctor can be important.
First, doctors will ask about the symptoms you have been experiencing. More precisely, they will ask about the characteristics of your stools, like consistency and frequency. They can also ask about associated symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, among others. After this, your doctor can suspect stress diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome, so they’ll ask about emotional stress in your life.
Even if your doctor thinks you have stress diarrhea, they will indicate some laboratory tests either way. This is to make sure no other disease or condition is causing the symptoms. A stool sample, blood tests, and others can help rule out other causes of diarrhea.
The necessary exams vary depending on the overall patient’s health background, including age and family history for diseases. For example, depending on the case, your doctor may need to perform a colonoscopy. This is an option, particularly in patients, when colon cancer is suspected. It consists of a tube with a camera on the tip inserted through the anus with the patient under anesthesia.
Stress diarrhea or IBS
Once all the other diarrhea causes are ruled out, the doctor could seek the stress diarrhea diagnosis. A condition that usually has stress-induced diarrhea is irritable bowel syndrome. In order to diagnose IBS, patients need to have recurrent stomach pain a minimum of one day per week in the previous three months.
Also, they should have at least two of the following:
- The abdominal pain needs to have a relation to defecation
- Change in stool frequency
- Change in stool form or appearance
What is the treatment for stress diarrhea?
The treatment for stress-related diarrhea should be treating the trigger that’s causing it. This can be achieved through therapy or psychological treatment. This way, you can identify stressors in your life in other to avoid them in the future. Nonetheless, people don’t always take care of their mental health.
Your doctor will probably recommend symptomatic treatment (this means giving treatment that although not cures the disease, mitigates the symptoms) for you to feel better in the meantime. When you have diarrhea, one of the most important things is to keep yourself hydrated. This can be done with oral fluids, but you may need hydration through your veins if you have severe diarrhea.
Among the medications, people with stress diarrhea can take, there are anti-diarrheal medicines. Loperamide (Imodium) can help slow down the large intestine movement and allow more water absorption. Also, antispasmodic drugs like Bentyl and Levsin help calm stomach pain by stopping abdominal cramps.
Additionally, taking care of your diet can be an effective way to lower stress symptoms, diarrhea, or IBS. You can identify what foods may worsen your symptoms, and therefore, avoid them.
Do you think you have symptoms of stress diarrhea?
This tool is an Irritable Bowel Syndrome Symptoms Checker. It gathers the most important signs, symptoms, and risk factors for stress diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome. The tool will tell anybody who uses it the likelihood of their symptoms because of this ailment. Using the tool is free and would only take a few minutes.