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Why do I get diarrhea when stressed out?

Updated on July 5, 2014

Getting diarrhea when you are stressed out?

Having " butterflies in the stomach" is a way to depict the effects of emotions on our digestive system. If you get a bout of diarrhea every time you face a stressful event, such as before a job interview or before going on a flight, chances are high that that diarrhea is caused by stress. The diarrhea in this case is highly contextual, meaning that it predictably shows up during stressful events. But why does this happen and what can be done to reduce this annoying problem?

For diarrhea when feeling stressed, you'll need to blame your fight or flight response. It all starts when the amygdala, a part of our brain that plays a great role on emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. Soon, our bodies are programmed to promptly respond to such distress call through many physiological changes caused by a rush of adrenaline into the bloodstream released by the adrenal glands. When we are stressed, our heart pumps faster, our breathing increases,the blood pressure goes up, the muscles get tense and ready for action, our senses sharpen, the pupils dilate and blood flows away towards our extremities so we can be ready for fight or flight.

When it comes to our digestive system, stress causes less oxygen and less blood flow to our stomach and small intestine. As a result, our appetite is suppressed and digestion considerably slows down, causing food to linger there longer. Since food piles up against the top portion of the stomach, the esophageal sphincter opens up leading to accumulation of acid and excessive stomach churning. At the same time, the opposite happens in our lower intestines where motility increases causing food to move quickly out of the digestive system causing less time for water to be reabsorbed into the body, which ultimately leads to psychosomatic diarrhea.

Surprised bu how quickly our gut responds to our emotions? Truth is, our gut is full of nerves that are highly sensitive. For a good reason many people claim that that the gut is like a little brain. For more on the connection between brain and gut read my other hub "can you get an ulcer from stress?" There are quite some interesting findings from medical experts posted there.

Dealing with diarrhea when stressed

So now that you know how your body responds to stress, it's time to take action and reduce the occurrences. Some people report having less bouts of diarrhea by taking Imodium when they first start feeling stressed, but it doesn't seem to work for everybody. Truth is, the Imodium is a short-term solution and does nothing to get rid of the source of the problem, that is, the stress. You will therefore have to do everything possible to reduce the episodes of stress and prevent them from occurring. However, no matter how obvious it may seem that your diarrhea is caused by stress, it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor about your symptoms. Your doctor may want to screen you for other causes of diarrhea and may have some helpful suggestions as to how to lower your stress. Following are some effective ways you can reduce your stress.

  • There are several herbal supplements that can help you reduce your stress. Kava, passionflower and Valerian root can be helpful, but as always, consult with your doctor before taking these.
  • Exercise. There are many beneficial effects in exercising and it's a much more productive way to deal with stress than thinking all day long about your problems.
  • Meditation and yoga can be helpful. You can teach your body to relax just as you can teach your body to respond to stress. Knowing how to switch off your brain command center and stopping it from telling your body to respond may be helpful.
  • Therapy. There are many forms of therapy nowadays available for people who suffer from stress and anxiety. Most likely, if your stress causes digestive issues there some distortion in your thinking that needs addressed. The question to ask yourself is "do I really have a good reason to feel so stressed?" Most likely, your life is not in any danger that requires the intervention of your flight or fight response. It's highly probable your body is responding to irrational thoughts that you can really do without!
  • Medications. There are many medications that may induce a relaxed state, but the trouble is that many people tend to get addicted as they rely on them too much. It would be best to avoid this route if possible. After all, you will feel a greater sense of achievement if you can combat stress because of your powerful mind rather than the aid of a drug!

As seen, there are many steps you can take to reduce your anxiety. Be prepared though: it may take a while to overcome your stress, especially if you have been rehearsing the "thinking distorted thoughts" for quite some time. Truth is, your body may have been conditioned for many years to respond to your brain's command center so that even the mere thought of something stressful automatically increases your intestinal motility. The journey though is quite worthy, as stress can put a toll on your health and overall well being.


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    • profile image

      Lyndee 3 years ago

      I rellay needed to find this info, thank God!

    • Farkle profile image

      Farkle 3 years ago

      Awesome that you are finding a way to go to the root of the problem instead of relying on drugs. Self talking is often very effective if you can talk yourself out of irrational thoughts.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I have a lot of physical symptom associated with stress, including stomach upset. Thankfully, it hasn't gotten to the point of diarrhea. Through counseling, I have learned that I had several irrational beliefs that lead to greater stress under certain situations. Replacing them with more rational beliefs and thought patterns has been helpful. I have learned to check my thoughts whenever I start feeling stressed out, and I can usually identify where the problem is.