The causes of loose stools and how to fix them.

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We all have loose stools or diarrhea from time to time. While stools can be watery, runny, and show the classic signs of food poisoning or stomach flu, other times, stools are simply softer than usual for no clear reason. Here are 14 causes of loose stools (hard but slightly mushy, loose, shapeless, or full-blown diarrhea).

Illustration from Joshua Song, Get Drug Information

Food or drink

Certain types of food and drink can cause loose stools.

Fructose

Fructose is also found in fruits, fruit juices, honey, and some vegetables, and fructose is also found in table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (used in sweetened processed foods and beverages). If you consume large amounts, or if you have a condition like fructose malabsorption, fructose can cause loose stools or diarrhea, gas, or abdominal pain .

If you eat high-fructose foods, such as juice, honey, agave syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, palm sugar, or coconut sugar, limiting your serving size can help.

Sugar alcohols

Some people believe that sugar alcohols, including xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, erythritol, and other artificial sweeteners, are laxatives. Often used as artificial sweeteners (in sugar-free candy and gum, diet drinks, and sugar substitutes), sugar alcohols are also found in foods. Sorbitol, for example, is found in peaches, apples, pears, and prunes.

Sugar alcohols are poorly absorbed. As a result, excessive consumption causes sugar alcohols to draw water from the bloodstream into the intestines, leading to diarrhea and loose stools .

Drink sugar alcohol in moderation. If you rely on artificial sweeteners for diabetes or other medical conditions, talk to your doctor about using different sweeteners and consuming them in moderation.

Coffee

Drinking coffee can stimulate the contraction and relaxation of the intestinal muscles (called peristalsis), thus promoting a bowel movement. The acidity of coffee also causes the body to produce more bile, which can lead to loose stools.

In addition to its gut-stimulating properties, coffee can also lead to looser stools because as stool moves rapidly through the colon, there is less time for the body to reabsorb water (and stool to harden).

Try a darker roast, like a French roast, which tends to have less caffeine than a lighter one. Also, avoid milk or cream, excess sugar, and sweeteners like sorbitol, which can also cause loose stools.

Fatty food

Fatty foods or a high-fat diet (such as the ketogenic diet) can lead to bowel movements and loose stools in some people. Food in the stomach and small intestine (especially fatty foods) cause the colon to contract and move stool. … These colon contractions, called the gastrocolic reflex , can cause a bowel movement shortly after eating.

Certain conditions, such as chronic pancreatitis, can also cause diarrhea or oily loose stools. Although fatty foods can cause loose stools, talk to your doctor if this is common.

The spicy food

Hot and spicy foods can irritate the intestinal lining and cause loose stools. This usually happens after a spicy meal and you quickly recover. The compounds contained in spicy foods are not absorbed by the body and enter the intestines.

Although not all people who eat spicy foods have loose stools, if this happens to you, try limiting your intake of spicy foods. Eating yogurt, rice, or bread can help counteract some of the effects of spicy foods on the intestines.

Alcohol

Ethanol in alcohol speeds up contractions in the colon, which means waste moves through the intestines more quickly and the colon has less time to absorb water, which can lead to watery stools.

If you notice that drinking alcohol is affecting your bowel movements, try to see if wine and alcohol are causing you less digestive problems than beer or malt. Lowering overall consumption will also help.

Medicine

Using certain herbs or medications can cause loose stools. Some medications and supplements include:

  • Antacids containing magnesium hydroxide
  • Antibiotics
  • Chemotherapy
  • Magnesium
  • Senna

Research shows that probiotics can help prevent diarrhea that can occur after taking antibiotics. The American Gastroenterological Association has published a consensus on the use of probiotics for 2020 after a systematic review of previously published research. Regardless of age, most gastroenterologists agree on the benefits of probiotics for preventing C. difficile infection. The report , published in the journal Nutrition in Clinical Practice in 2016, included an analysis of previously published clinical trials testing the effects. probiotics for people with antibiotic-associated diarrhea .

Their analysis showed that probiotics were associated with a reduced risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in adults (but not in people older than 65 years). According to another study, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG is the most effective strain for antibiotic-associated diarrhea .

Chronic diseases

Loose stools can also occur in a variety of health conditions.

Lactose intolerance

A natural sugar, lactose, is found in milk, ice cream, cheese, and other dairy products. Many adults have low levels of lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose. Consuming milk or dairy products can cause loose stools and diarrhea in people with lactose intolerance .

Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which affects the colon, can cause cramps, abdominal pain, gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. Symptoms vary greatly from person to person. Some people have loose stools or diarrhea, others have constipation or alternate bowel movements.

Celiac Disease

Gluten-free foods like bread, pasta, and baked goods are a problem for people with celiac disease . Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, triggers an autoimmune response in people with celiac disease. One of the symptoms can be diarrhea or loose stools.

This condition can cause decreased energy, involuntary weight loss, and lack of growth. If the condition is not treated, it can be difficult to associate gluten-containing foods with symptoms due to damage to the intestinal lining.

Abandonment syndrome

The disease is most often seen in people who have undergone bariatric (weight loss), esophageal, or gastric surgery. Dumping syndrome occurs when the food you eat moves too quickly from your stomach into your small intestine, causing loose stools.

Other chronic diseases

Loose stools can occur in the following cases:

These conditions can be diagnosed or treated, so it's best to see your doctor if you suspect or have been diagnosed with them.

Stomach flu

The stomach flu can cause diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, fever, and headache. Also known as viral gastroenteritis, it is very contagious.

Viruses (such as norovirus, rotavirus, and adenovirus) target the digestive tract and cause inflammation of the stomach and intestines, diarrhea, vomiting, and seizures .

Symptoms usually appear one to three days after infection and can range from mild to severe. Eating foods like bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast can help. The young, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems are at risk of dehydration and should be closely monitored.

Poisoned food

Food poisoning, also known as bacterial gastroenteritis, occurs when food is undercooked, kept at room temperature for too long, or not heated enough, and becomes contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella or E. coli. The result is inflammation of the stomach and intestines and symptoms that can include diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and nausea.

In mild cases, dehydration and eating foods rich in potassium can help relieve symptoms, although some people need treatment.

When to contact your healthcare provider

In many cases, loose stools are the result of what you have eaten and will return to normal quickly. When this happens, it usually lasts two to three days. Some people are more likely to have loose stools due to dietary changes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or other conditions. You should see your doctor if your symptoms persist or become frequent.

Emergency symptoms

See your doctor immediately if you have any of the following symptoms :

  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Blood or pus in the stool
  • Black or resin colored stools
  • Chills, vomiting, dizziness, or fainting.
  • Confusion
  • Dehydration (dry mouth, infrequent or dark urination)
  • A fever of 102 F or higher or that lasts more than a few days
  • Cardiopalmus
  • Unexplained weight loss

Also, call your doctor if you are elderly, have recently been hospitalized, pregnant, or have a weakened immune system (such as taking steroids, transplant rejection medications, or TNF-alpha inhibitors such as infliximab or etanercept).

It is clear that talking about this topic is inconvenient, but your doctor understands and is always ready to help. The conversation may make you uncomfortable, but it can help ease your symptoms.

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