“When you are stressed, your body releases extra corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), a hypothalamic hormone, in the bowels,” says gastroenterologist Niket Sonpal, MD. “This hormone helps mediate your stress response, but while doing so, it also acts on the intestines, causing them to become inflamed.” According to a small 2014 study, that same hormone may also increase permeability of the gut, which is the main feature of leaky gut. But, it's also been identified in people who have irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease—all of which are known to cause irregular poops.
“Cortisol, adrenaline, and serotonin are all released in the brain during periods of heightened stress. That raises the amount of serotonin in your gut, which can cause spasms in the colon.” —Niket Sonpal, MD
The classic stress-related hormones are also part of the reason why stress can make you poop more. “Cortisol, adrenaline, and serotonin are all released in the brain during periods of heightened stress,” says Dr. Sonpal. “That raises the amount of serotonin in your gut, which can cause spasms in the colon.” Those spasms can translate directly into diarrhea by causing the contents of your bowels to move through your system faster than they should.
On the flip side, the hormonal response to stress can also slow digestion down (which can actually lead to just as uncomfortable bowel movements as when it moves at hyper-speed). Essentially, that same big release of adrenaline described above can cause the enteric nervous system—the nerves governing your gut function—to either slow or halt, leading to bloating and cramping, says Dr. Sonpal.
And speaking of the nervous system, your gut is also linked to your brain via the vagus nerve, which plays a role in maintaining its homeostasis, or general stability (read: save you from out-of-nowhere poop emergencies). “The vagus nerve starts in the brain and supplies nerve fibers to the heart, diaphragm, and the gut, from the esophagus and stomach to the small and large bowels,” gastroenterologist Avanish Aggarwal, MD, previously told Well+Good. When that nerve is set off by stress or anxiety, your parasympathetic nervous system responds with an attempt to relax—which can trigger a particularly sudden urge to go to the bathroom.
To stop nervous poops in their tracks, you might start with some deep breathing, which can help calm an overstimulated vagus nerve. And if you know that you’re generally a member of the stress-poop gang, Dr. Sonpal also recommends steering clear of sugary drinks, sodas, and anything else high in processed sugar, as all of the above are common inflammatory foods that can make you more susceptible to bloating and diarrhea from the get-go. “Minerals also get depleted during high periods of stress,” Dr. Sonpal adds, “so I suggest drinking water with electrolytes to help replenish those, as well.”
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