‘I’m a Gastroenterologist, and Here’s What To Do About Your Election Stress Poops’

Photo: Stocksy / Raymond Forbes LLC
Stress has the power to impact your bowel movements—and not in a good way. Whether it's constipation brought on by a stressful deadline or the instant urge to poop before public speaking, your gastrointestinal tract and your emotions have an intimate relationship. But 2020 has brought with it a different kind of stress in the form of a pandemic coinciding with a presidential election. Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York-based internist and gastroenterologist, explains that election stress poops are a real thing, the result of increased levels of cortisol.

"Cortisol is our stress hormone and what it does primarily to the intestines in some people is it slows them down and can cause them to become a little bit inflamed and can cause constipation," says Dr. Sonpal. "In other people, however, it can actually cause them to have diarrhea. And it kind of goes back and forth, and that's because of the interplay between the amount of stress you're under, what you've eaten, how much fiber you've had, how much water you've had, and how your emotions change."

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Whether stress causes diarrhea or makes you feel backed up varies from person to person. Typically, he says you'll stick to one habit. Long-term stress, like stress brought about by this election and the uncertainty sure to follow it, can push your symptoms even further to one extreme.

"When the long-term stress comes into play, [my patients] will shift towards one spectrum more chronically and they'll stay there for longer periods of time," he says. "Basically they develop an irritable bowel syndrome with chronic stress. And that's what's maybe happening with everybody in the election."

If constipation is your issue, try eating foods that help you poop:

One way to stop this issue is by keeping an eye on your diet. Dr. Sonpal says to ensure you're getting enough fiber from fruits and vegetables, drinking enough water, and avoiding alcohol.

"When we get stressed out, we also change our diet, so you tend to eat emotion food, comfort food," says Dr. Sonpal. "When you're stressed out, your chemicals in your body are already going to change your bowel movements and so you don't want to then allow the compounding effect of changing your diet to also cause a problem."

Additionally, engage in stress-reducing activities. "Make sure that you don't have any of the alarming symptoms like blood, pain with defecation, severe abdominal cramping," he says. Then, take a time out from the election. "I've had patients tell me that when they get stressed out they prophylactically do anti-stressor things like yoga, stretching, exercise, going for a run, or watching TV shows like Schitt's Creek."

You may want to consider taking a probiotic, but any medication beyond that should involve a conversation with your doctor. "If you're getting to a point where the symptoms are so bothersome that you're thinking you need meds, it's better to talk to a physician first," says Dr. Sonpal.

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