Why Does Everything Give Me Diarrhea?

by Wendy Wisner
A woman in a yellow shirt lying down while holding her hands on her stomach

I’ve always had a sensitive stomach. I remember being a little kid and having to stay home from school because of this or that belly ache. When I got older, I began to notice that my stomach would be the first thing that would react when I was under stress. I’d get diarrhea right before I had to perform (like in a school play or a school presentation) or anytime I was about to board an airplane (I had an intense fear of flying).

I think all of that is fairly typical, but the shit really hit the fan for me (see what I did there?) once I became a mom. I don’t know if it was hormonal changes, getting older, stress, or sleep deprivation (I suspect all of those, actually), but at a certain point, literally everything was giving me diarrhea.

I’d have to run to the toilet anytime even a little bit of stress entered my life. I’d make constant trips to the toilet during the mornings when I was particularly sleep deprived. PMS or ovulation was a total shit show. Certain foods would send me straight to the shitter, too. These would be foods that are known to do that (beans, onions, too much fruit), but it was pretty out of control for me.

It was at that time that I decided I better start to seek medical attention, because what I was experiencing was seriously unmanageable. I hated leaving the house for too long, for fear that I’d be driving and not be near enough to a toilet.

Besides the constant pooping, I was also experiencing really bad abdominal pain. I’d had a completely unmedicated childbirth, and this pain was worse than that. Yes, really.

After seeing my PCP, a chiropractor, and a gastroenterologist, I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This was helpful in that it ruled out more serious stuff, but it’s also a diagnosis without many treatment options. I was told that I needed to relax (no duh) and that making some dietary changes would help. There was not much advice about what dietary changes, however.

Eventually, I found a dietician who specialized in IBS and other gut-related disorders. Through food journaling and elimination diets, she was able to help me tease out my dietary triggers. I found that I couldn’t eat any dairy products (this is often the case in someone who has chronic diarrhea, unfortunately). Additionally, adopting a low FODMAP diet worked wonders for me. It turned out that high doses of beans, onions, and specific kinds of fruits really did wreck my gut.

But that wasn’t the only issue. I needed to control my anxiety—including my anxiety specifically about having gut issues—before I could really get things under control. I went back to therapy around this time, and I also started meditating daily. These things really helped.

I’ve been on a dairy-free, low FODMAP diet for years, and have made mental health a major priority as well. My gut isn’t perfect by any means—and if I get really anxious, it all goes to shit, literally—but I know what triggers my diarrhea, and I know what I can do to get things back on track in my gut.

I’ve been pretty open about my diarrhea and digestive issues over the years (this isn’t the first article I’ve written about it!), and I often get messages from people asking me what they can do about the fact that everything seems to give them diarrhea and turns their gut inside out.

I am definitely not a doctor by any means, but I’ve gleaned some lessons from my own experience and my own research about digestion, mental health, food, and more.

So, here are my tips, as an lifelong-sensitive-gut-diarrhea-prone-IBS-sufferer:

Get A Proper Diagnosis

Even though it’s tempting to just say that you have IBS or a nervous stomach, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis, especially if your symptoms are ongoing and impacting your day-to-day life. Besides IBS, you could have food allergies, including celiac disease. You could also have a different gut disorder, like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Importantly, you want to rule out more serious causes of chronic diarrhea, such as bacteria, parasites, and cancer.

Remember That Gut Issues Usually Have Multiple Causes

There are so many things that can cause chronic diarrhea, including dietary stuff, lifestyle issues, stress, hormones, medications and supplements, and alcohol/drug consumption. It can be easy to focus on one thing—many folks focus on what they are eating, for example—but it’s often a combination of things that are causing the issue. So a more holistic approach makes sense.

Don’t Forget About The Brain-Gut Connection

I would never say that having constant diarrhea is “all in your head.” One of the doctors I saw basically implied this and it really pissed me off, especially since it turned out that what I was eating was having a huge impact on things (once I changed my diet, it was like night and day in my gut).

At the same time, there is a known mind-gut connection that can be very strong for most of us, especially if we already have a sensitive gut to begin with, or if we have IBS. If your gut goes into overdrive—and basically dumps out its contents—when you are faced with stress or panic, then you are probably someone who would benefit from meditation, therapy, and anti-anxiety medication. These things can not only make you feel better emotionally, but can really stabilize your gut.

Get Multiple Opinions

In my experience—and in the experience of many folks I know—healthcare providers aren’t always well versed in gut health. First, you should definitely go to a gastroenterologist rather than your regular doctor. But even beyond that, it might take a few tries until you can find a gastroenterologist who will be able to understand what is going on with you, especially if you are diagnosed with IBS or a sensitive stomach.

So, if you can, get more than one opinion. If possible, look for a GI doctor who specializes in IBS and who takes a more holistic approach to the matter. Consider finding a nutritionist who specializes in irritable bowel syndrome, or a mental health specialist who does.

Here’s maybe the most important piece of advice I can give you: Don’t give up. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. Many folks who deal with chronic diarrhea just kind of believe that this is what life has to be like now. They may be too embarrassed to get help, or are just too overwhelmed with life or the diarrhea itself to figure out a way to solve it.

I totally get it. But a life chained to the toilet is no life at all. Trust me, I know. It doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to settle your gut down. And you deserve to feel well and balanced once more.