A bad case of diarrhea can make you feel pretty stressed. But could stress also be at the root of your symptoms? It can be difficult for people to tell which comes first—stress or diarrhea—since the two problems often co-exist.

The Scope of the Problem

Diarrhea is a common problem that leads to approximately 450,000 hospital admissions each year, according to Alberto Barroso, MD, a gastroenterologist at Houston Methodist Hospital. He says that the cause of the condition can vary, as can the severity. Some people may experience diarrhea only occasionally, while others may find it a chronic problem that interferes with their daily living.

The Stress-Diarrhea Connection

"Anxiety and stress may be factors in causing diarrhea, but it's rare that diarrhea is solely caused by anxiety and stress," Barroso says. However, some studies have found a connection between stress and anxiety and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which causes diarrhea, cramping, and other related symptoms.

Exactly why the relationship exists between IBS and diarrhea is unclear to many experts. Although they believe that the anxiety isn't creating the IBS, some feel that the changes in the brain that occur when you experience anxiety and stress can also cause changes to your intestines that lead to diarrhea. In addition, people with IBS may be more sensitive to stress, which can cause their symptoms to flare.

Barroso points out that being under stress can also make your symptoms feel worse than they would otherwise. So while the stress may not be causing the diarrhea, it can be making you more aware of it and making you feel more uncomfortable as a result.

Solutions for Treating Diarrhea

How you treat diarrhea depends on the cause and severity. For a mild case, Barroso says it's often appropriate just to watch it for a few days and make sure it doesn't progress.

You might also manage the symptoms with medications. "Medications can decrease bowel propulsive motility and increase water absorption," he says. However, when the diarrhea is more severe or doesn't resolve in a few days, it's probably time to see your doctor. If the diarrhea is keeping you from eating and drinking and/or occurs with vomiting, you could be at risk for dehydration so you'll want to seek medical attention quickly. This situation can require hospitalization for intravenous fluids. If the diarrhea is chronic or complex, or seems to be IBS, you'll probably need to see a specialist to come up with a treatment plan.

For diarrhea that seems to be related to stress, Barroso says that some patients benefit from seeing a behavioral health practitioner and lifestyle changes, such as:

  • Employing stress management techniques
  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Practicing deep breathing techniques
  • Engaging in relaxation activities

Alberto Barroso, MD, reviewed this article.



Alberto Barroso, MD, gastroenterologist at Houston Methodist Hospital. Email interview, 15 Nov. 2013. http://www.houstonmethodist.org/Gastroenterology