Once upon a time, talking about mental health was unheard of. Thankfully, that’s changed. However, something that’s still rarely discussed is the physical effect mental health can have on digestion. That’s right folks, today we’re here to talk about poop—specifically, why anxiety triggers it and how to stop nervous poop in its tracks. Is it dinner table conversation? Maybe not. Is it necessary? Absolutely.
How does anxiety affect your body?
First things first, let’s acknowledge the fact that anxiety has effects far beyond the mind alone. According to the Mayo Clinic, physical side effects of anxiety include an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, trembling, feeling fatigued, and insomnia. Then there's the fact that your nerves can cause you to have physical GI reactions like nervous poops. "The gut’s nervous system—also known as the enteric nervous system—relies on neuropeptides and neurotransmitters like serotonin to regulate both intestinal motility and secretion," says Andrea Culliford, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist with the Medical Offices of Manhattan. "Nervousness or anxiety can cause one to feel the need to go to the bathroom frequently in anxious situations and is related to the brain and gut’s nervous systems sending each other messages in times of stress or anxiety."
(FYI: Nervous poops are more common than you might think. Even Olympian Adam Rippon has struggled!)
Why does being nervous make you poop
Believe it or not, anxious nerves really can trigger the urge to go to the bathroom—it’s not just bad luck or that latte you just drank. “When we experience anxiety or stress, our body activates the sympathetic nervous system—this is our flight or fight response, it protects the body against imminent danger by conserving non-essential functions that are not necessary for immediate survival including the gastrointestinal system,” explains Greenville, North Carolina-based gastroenterologist Dr. Danielle Hoo-Fatt, MD. “This results in a decreased gastric emptying which leads to nausea, abdominal pain, and indigestion.”
While you might think that that means you won’t poop while you’re experiencing anxiety, think again. “Anxiety and stress causes the colon (large bowels) to increase motor function which leads to diarrhea and feeling the sensation to poop,” Dr. Hoo-Fatt reveals.
Okay but why does this happen? “The brain and gut share a connection called the brain-gut axis,” Dr. Hoo-Fat says. “During a flight or fight response which is triggered by stress and anxiety, your body increases stress hormones such as cortisol, serotonin, and adrenaline. These hormones stimulate the large intestines and create waves of contractions in the gut which leads to the need to visit the porcelain throne.”
The impact of diet on nervous poops
Okay, but is it really just about the mind’s effect on the gut—or is it a two-way street? According to gastroenterologist Dr. Ali Kazemi, who is an Inno Supps ambassador, there’s truth to the saying ‘You are what you eat.’
“Eating certain foods may increase the GI symptoms of anxiety,” he admits. “For example, eating a diet high in simple sugars, ingesting lots of caffeine, eating spicy foods, and eating fatty foods all increase the chances of nervous poops.”
While this may feel like the worst news ever (considering, let’s be real, these foods are tasty), there’s a silver lining. By being more mindful about what you eat, you can not only boost your mental health but prevent yourself from running to (and potentially not making it to) the bathroom.
“Eating a more complete diet with whole foods may help in preventing [anxious poop] symptoms,” Dr. Kazemi says. “Also consider: eating whole grains and ensuring an adequate fiber intake are helpful; adequate hydration, minimizing caffeine and alcohol, avoiding trigger foods and practicing mindful eating (this means eating slowly, chewing thoroughly, and avoiding stressful eating).”
How to stop nervous poop in its tracks
Feeling inspired? Keep reading to uncover five gastroenterologist tips for preventing and managing nervous poops.
1. Decrease caffeine intake
Your morning coffee is what kickstarts your day, but you might want to take a break from it if you're experiencing nervous poops. According to Dr. Culliford, it's crucial to decrease caffeine intake as it "may exacerbate the need to go to the bathroom."
2. Be aware of what you're eating
Some foods might make your nervous poops worse than others, so jot down anything you're eating that may be causing problems. "Avoid food and drink that give you the symptoms," says Dr. Culliford. "For example, milk/dairy or anything fried tends to exacerbate the situation and make people feel like they have to run to the bathroom."
You can also add anxiety-reducing supplements and foods to your diet. Valerian root is said to help with anxiety and can be added to tea.
3. Destress with exercise and meditation
When it comes to stopping nervous poops, it's always best to go to the root of the problem: your anxiety. "Decrease stress and anxiety through regular exercise, such as yoga," says Dr. Culliford. "Also consider stress-reducing techniques like meditation, biofeedback therapy, or hypnotherapy."
Speaking of meditation, focusing on your breathing is said to help reduce anxiety symptoms, too. Knowing deep breathing techniques is especially helpful in public settings, as you can use them to overcome social anxiety and any nervous poops that accompany it.
4. Make sure you're getting enough fiber
How much fiber are you actually getting every day? Dr. Culliford says to aim for the average suggested fiber intake, which is 25 grams per day, in order to stop nervous poops. "We usually only get 10 to 12 grams per day in our daily diet," she says. To make sure you're reaching your fiber goals, eat plenty of veggies, lentils, and whole grains.
5. See a doctor if you need to
If your nervous poops don't seem to be getting better, don't be afraid to schedule an appointment with your doctor. "It's always a good idea to make sure nothing more worrisome is happening, such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease," says Dr. Culliford
Looking for more direct instructions? Gastroenterologist Dr. MaryKate Kratzer, MD, says that if you see blood in your stool, if your poop looks black and sticky, or if you can’t stop nervous pooping after a week, it’s time to schedule an appointment with a GI doctor. “You can always see us to help you decipher if they’re truly the nervous poops,” she says. “We can help with lifestyle modifications or medications if needed.”
Frequently asked questions
How long does stress poop last?
According to the gastroenterologists that we talked with, nervous poops shouldn’t be perpetual. If your nervous bowel habits are ongoing for longer than a week and/or are frequent enough to disrupt your quality of life, it’s time to reach out to your GP—or go directly to a gastroenterologist.
Is it IBS or Anxiety?
The reason you want to visit a GI doctor is because they’ll be able to determine if it’s truly nervous poops or if something else is at play, like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. “Similarly to ‘nervous poops,’ symptoms of IBS are frequently worsened with high-stress situations, however, IBS is more of a long-term syndrome,” Dr. Kratzer says. “IBS can cause diarrhea, constipation, or a combination of the two which makes it hard to reach a happy medium when it comes to bowel habits.” A key differentiator between IBS and nervous poops, according to Dr. Kratzer, is that IBS is usually accompanied by abdominal pain that gets better after going to the bathroom.
Here's a registered dietitian's guide to gut health:
Here's why photos of your poop (yes, really) are key to future gut health innovation. Then find out why you can blame your hormones for gnarly period poops. And while you're at it, consider adding a poop spray to your cart STAT.
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