When the Going Gets Tough...

The tough get going to the bathroom.

Have you ever noticed that when stress hits, it can do a number on your gut — as in diarrhea?

It’s not your imagination. Those frequent trips to the bathroom and loose bowel movements are no coincidence.

Just as your brain is full of nerves, so is your gut. In fact, they happen to share many of the same nerve connections. The fancy name for it? The “gut-brain axis.”

You’ve no doubt felt the connection before:

  • Butterflies in your stomach when you get nervous before a big presentation.

  • Intense stomach cramps up after a big blow-up with your honey.

  • A lurching stomach when you have a near-miss with a crazy driver.

It can be a vicious cycle.

The stress of diarrhea can also add to your anxiety and exacerbate the problem. As in, your stress causes diarrhea, leading to even more stress.

“The relationship between environmental or psychological stress and gastrointestinal distress is complex and bidirectional: stress can trigger and worsen gastrointestinal pain and other symptoms, and vice versa.”
Harvard Medical School

What can I do about it?

Stress is a fact of life, of course. If you can better manage your stress, you can help manage your reaction to it — and in turn, protect your gut. Call it a virtuous cycle.

Here are some time-tested ways to put your stress on pause:

  • Learn to say no. Being a “people pleaser” can cause you to take on too much, which leads to stress. Remember that “no” is a complete sentence.

  • Learn to breathe. Yes, we all breathe, but taking a short voluntary break and practicing a minute of quiet, deep breathing can dissipate stress before it gets too unmanageable.

  • Try exercise, yoga or meditation. Physical activity signals your body to release chemicals (endorphins), which produce a feeling of calm throughout your body.

  • Change your mind. If you can’t change a situation, work on changing your reaction to that situation. By reframing your reaction, you can feel more in control.

  • Examine your diet. Are you eating foods that might contribute to stomach irritation?  For some people, these may include alcohol, caffeine, fatty or fried foods, fruit juice as well as acidic foods like tomatoes and some fruits like lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruit.

Finally, don’t ignore the role of psychotherapy — including, cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation therapy or hypnosis — to help manage your gastrointestinal distress. There is some scientific evidence to show that it can help.

And if you’re looking for a moment of relief right now, many over-the-counter meds can help. Here’s a full list, including that tried-and-true friend, Pepto Bismol.

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Photo by Jacqueline Munguía on Unsplash

For a Pause

  1. Not all diarrhea is harmless. Consult a medical professional if your diarrhea lasts for more than two days, if you experience severe pain in your abdomen or rectum, if you have a fever of 102 or higher or if there’s blood or pus in your stool. Psst…telemedicine might be a good option right about now.

  2. Diarrhea can be dehydrating, causing you to lose precious fluid. Make sure you drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration. If you have trouble taking it in, try sipping small amounts of water as often as possible or suck on ice or frozen popsicles. Experts advise you to drink at least one cup of liquid each time you have a loose bowel movement.

  3. Foods that can help replace potassium lost through diarrhea include bananas and potatoes without the skin. For more on what you should and should not eat when you have diarrhea, click here.

  4. If you frequently get diarrhea when you get stressed, you might want to rule out a condition called IBS, since IBS can make it even more likely to get diarrhea when you’re anxious.

One more thing

Remember when Mr. Roper eating escargot and going to a strip club was an acceptable way to sell Pepto-Bismol tablets?

Yeah, we don’t either.

Until next week, stay well. Stay healthy. Stay safe.

See you next time!


They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone.
— Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

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