A Gastroenterologist’s Top 5 Ways to Stop Nervous Poops—Because If Anything’s Going to Make You *More* Nervous, It’s That

Photo: Getty Images/Peter Dazeley

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. 

Experts In This Article

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?

Can stress cause diarrhea? 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, which protects the body against imminent danger by conserving nonessential functions that are not necessary for immediate survival, including the gastrointestinal system,” explains Greenville, North Carolina-based gastroenterologist Danielle Hoo-Fatt, MD. “This results in a decreased gastric emptying, which leads to nausea, abdominal pain, and indigestion.” 

While you might think that means you won’t poop while you’re experiencing anxiety, think again. “Anxiety and stress causes the colon (large bowel) 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 effect 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 Ali Kazemi, MD, 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 says. He notes the following foods increase the chances of nervous poops and anxiety diarrhea:

  • Foods high in simple sugars (think: candy, pastries)
  • Foods and drinks with caffeine
  • Spicy foods
  • Fatty foods

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. He suggests prioritizing high-fiber foods, including whole grains (think: oats, brown rice), and making sure you stay hydrated by drinking enough fluids and minimizing caffeine and alcohol (these tips are also important for good bowel health management overall). "Practice mindful eating (this means eating slowly and chewing thoroughly) and avoid stressful eating," he adds.

How to stop nervous poops

Feeling inspired? Keep reading to uncover five gastroenterologist tips for overcoming nervous pooping.

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

Paying attention to trigger foods is one of the best strategies for a nervous bowel. 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. For instance, there's some evidence that valerian root may help with anxiety. While it can be added to tea, it's always best to check in with your health care provider before incorporating this plant into your diet.

3. De-stress with exercise and meditation

When it comes to stopping nervous poops (and coping with digestive distress in general), 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? To reduce anxiety-related bowel issues and support good gut health in general, Dr. Culliford says to aim for the average suggested fiber intake, which is 25 grams per day. "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 you've tried the above ways to prevent nervous bowel movements and they 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? Internist and gastroenterologist 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.”


How long does stress poop last?

According to the gastroenterologists we talked with, nervous poops shouldn’t be perpetual. If your bowel anxiety symptoms 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.

“Similar 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:

—reviewed by Jennifer Gilbert, MD, MPH 

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