Maybe it happens 20 minutes after you take your first sip of coffee, mid-run, or in those crucial minutes leading up to your big work meeting. Regardless of how or when, well, sh*t happens—and sometimes, the urge to go number two skyrockets from zero to 60 faster than you can locate the nearest commode.
As far as why those urgent poop sweats happens, though, gastroenterologist Avanish Aggarwal, MD, says you can blame your vagus nerve. It’s a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system that oversees digestion and, among other things, it’s responsible for those emergency trips to the bathroom. Fortunately, though, when the vagus nerve strikes, there are gut-doctor-sanctioned tricks for how to hold in poop while you’re making your way to the john.
The vagus nerve runs from your brain to your abdomen, and is part of the gut’s nervous system (called the “enteric nervous system”), and it has a lot of power over the urgency of your bathroom trips. That’s because it governs peristalsis: an involuntary constriction and relaxation of the intestinal muscles that creates the poop sweats and makes you need to go—like now.
The vagus nerve governs an involuntary constriction and relaxation of the intestinal muscles that creates the poop sweats and makes you need to go—like now.
“Generally speaking, the rectum relaxes as stool moves in and holds it all until it is convenient to have a bowel movement. Or, the rectum reaches its capacity limit, and then there is an urgency to have a bowel movement,” says Dr. Aggarwal. “Certain factors may stimulate the rectum to contract and therefore have urgency. One important factor is stress, and the vagus and spinal nerves carry signals to the gut, causing spasm, and therefore urgency.” So, yes, a particularly biting email from your boss or a cortisol-heavy workout can cause the vagus nerve to send an urgent telegram to the organs downstairs, ahem, if you know what I mean.
Although you may feel as though you’re completely out of control when your vagus nerve decides to do you dirty, Dr. Aggarwal says that’s simply not the case. “One thing we can do to stop the bowel from moving is to squeeze the external anal sphincter muscle voluntarily until it is safe to have a bowel movement. Also, a simple meditation technique can help. Simply focus on the breath coming in to and out of the nose. Consciously trying to relax the body and visualizing that the rest of the body is relaxing the muscles helps,” he says. All of these relaxation techniques work because the vagus nerve also plays a role in triggering the body’s relaxation response by releasing calming hormones. Hey! It’s a complicated anatomical structure.
If you find yourself running to the bathroom often (and not just before a stressful family Thanksgiving dinner), though, it’s definitely time to make an appointment with your general practitioner or a gastroenterologist. But for those who only occasionally experience the poop sweats, a piece of advice: Say “thank you” to your vagus nerve while you’re on the toilet, and consciously relax so you can avoid any sources of stress that await outside the bathroom door.
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