Experiencing anxiety can look different for everyone. And while some are experts at managing their anxiety, when your racing mind causes symptoms at really inconvenient times, like a desperate need to run to the bathroom right before your big presentation, you may need a little extra support. After all, your poop waits for no one. But what is anxiety poop—and does anxiety really make you poop?
“Anxiety is essentially excessive worry that is usually irrational, at least to some degree,” says Meghan Marcum, PsyD, the chief clinical officer at A Mission for Michael healthcare. In some situations, short-term anxiety can be helpful, like when we tense up and become more aware when driving in dangerous conditions, she explains. But in scenarios when anxiety is chronic, meaning there is no imminent danger to actually be worried about, it can become harmful.
The symptoms of anxiety can feel like excessive worry throughout the day, sleep disturbances from ruminating thoughts, muscle tension, increased heart rate, inability to relax, and, you guessed it, an upset stomach. We asked experts to break down exactly why this happens and what you can do to finally get relief.
Why does anxiety make you poop?
Though more research is needed, science points to stress, anxiety, and anxiety disorders having a pretty important impact on your physical health. Chronic stress can lead to issues with your immune system, an increased risk for heart problems, and more, Marcum says. But this is especially true when it comes to your stomach due to the gut-brain axis.
“The gut-brain axis is the physical and chemical interaction between your gut and brain,” explains Nicole Lindel, M.S., R.D.N., an outpatient registered dietitian at Rocky Mountain Gastroenterology. “We do not know if stress and anxiety cause GI distress, the other way around, or both, but there is a definite correlation between the two.” What’s more, your gut produces 90% of the neurotransmitter that regulates mood called serotonin, directly impacting your mental state, she adds.
So in what ways do disturbances in your brain impact your stomach? “Anxiety can contribute to an upset stomach and problems with bowels, which can also impact appetite and energy levels,” Marcum says.
This happens because our microbiome can change in different ways during stressful times, like changes in stomach sensitivity can cause abdominal pain, an increase in stomach acid caused by stress can result in acid reflux or nausea, and changes in your microbiome can lead to constipation, flatulence, bloating, diarrhea, and more, explains Ashkan Farhadi, M.D., a gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley. He adds that this works both ways, and a change in your microbiome can make someone more anxious, stressed, or depressed.
Stomach disturbances during stressful times can also be triggered by the increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause constipation, diarrhea, or even both, says Niket Sonpal, M.D., adjunct professor of clinical medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. These symptoms will likely develop slowly, and you’ll find when they’re anxiety-induced, so you won’t experience them on weekends, holidays, or other stress-free situations.
“Stress can wreak havoc on everything, and the most common symptom people are going to notice with stress is called irritable bowel syndrome,” explains Dr. Sonpal. “It’s a spectrum of disorders that everyone is going to experience differently because we all experience stress differently.”
How to keep your gut healthy
The first step to relieving your stomach from anxiety-related GI issues is to rule out any larger problems, like food sensitivity (more on that later), Lindel says. But one of the best ways you can give your stomach relief from GI issues during stressful times is to consistently support your gut’s overall health, Lindel says. Some ways you can keep your gut healthy include:
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day, Lindel suggests.
- Enjoy your meals slowly in an environment without stress or distractions, she adds.
- Dr. Sonpal recommends incorporating foods with probiotics, like kimchi, kombucha, and yogurt to help balance out your gut bacteria.
- Lindel encourages incorporating different foods into your diet to help diversify your gut microbiome.
- Use herbs, like stomach relaxing teas, to ease symptoms, suggests Sabine Hazan, M.D., a gastroenterologist, researcher, and author of Let's Talk Sh!t.
- Incorporate more whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains into your diet, Lindel says. Dr. Sonpal agrees, noting the fiber in these foods is especially helpful in supporting your overall gut health.
- Lindel suggests avoiding processed foods and beverages, like soda, cookies, cakes, and chips.
What you can do to relieve anxiety
When it comes to relieving anxiety, it’s important to be realistic with what you have control over. “You can’t change your job, relationships, friends, financial situation, society, etc. every day because it’s stressful,” Dr. Farhadi says. “Changing the things outside of us is doable, but not practical. The practical thing is how we manage stress.”
So, if you’re caught in a stressful moment, like you’re scheduled for an important interview or big presentation, there are some in-the-moment tips Marcum suggests trying to manage the stress. “Engage in long, slow breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth,” she says. “This can be challenging during the mindset of anxiety, but breathing this way will help reduce your heart rate and blood pressure.” Additionally, she recommends focusing on reality and not overthinking things.
Anxiety can build up over time, so Marcum suggests incorporating these tips daily to help decrease the symptoms of anxiety:
- Eat balanced meals.
- Aim for the same bedtime every night.
- Integrate relaxation exercises into your daily routine.
- Schedule cardiovascular exercises to help flush the stress hormone out of your system.
When to seek help for anxiety and related symptoms
If you’re finding your mental health is impacting your day-to-day activities, seek the help of a mental health professional, suggests Marcum. A gastroenterologist can also be a great help in determining the cause of your stomach issues and rule out any major illnesses that may be impacting your health. If you’ve been experiencing symptoms for longer than two or three days, a doctor can perform tests like a colonoscopy or bloodwork to rule out some issues, Dr. Hazan says. This is essential if you’re experiencing dangerous symptoms like blood in your stool or abdominal pain, shares Dr. Sonpal says. Additionally, symptoms like extreme weight loss, fevers, severe symptoms that seem to be getting worse, or family history of colon cancer are all reasons to visit a doctor, Dr. Farhadi adds.
“When you have these symptoms, it’s a diagnosis of exclusion,” explains Dr. Sonpal. “We want to exclude celiac disease or something more serious.”
Additionally, if you’re worried about food sensitivity, you can work with a registered dietitian to follow a systematic elimination diet, Lindel suggests. This typically includes temporarily removing common trigger foods from your diet, like lactose, garlic, onions, and some fruits and vegetables to determine if they’re hurting your gut.
“The diet is not a forever diet. The purpose of any form of an elimination diet is to eventually reintroduce these suspected foods one at a time to determine specific triggers and then expand the diet as tolerated,” she emphasizes.
Arielle Weg is the associate editor at Prevention and loves to share her favorite wellness and nutrition obsessions. She previously managed content at The Vitamin Shoppe, and her work has also appeared in Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Cooking Light, MyRecipes, and more. You can usually find her taking an online workout class or making a mess in the kitchen, creating something delicious she found in her cookbook collection or saved on Instagram.