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Occasional morning diarrhea (watery or loose stool) is completely normal and usually not something to worry about. However, if diarrhea is happening frequently or consistently (which is called chronic diarrhea), there could be something more going on.
This article discusses short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) causes of morning diarrhea, problems you may develop due to diarrhea, and how to get digestive issues under control.
Most of the time, diarrhea is acute and self-limiting, meaning it doesn't last long and will go away on its own. That’s because it often arises from a cause that is short term. These are some of the acute reasons for diarrhea.
Infection or Illness
The most common cause of diarrhea in Western countries is from an intestinal infection sometimes called the stomach flu (the clinical term for which is viral gastroenteritis). This is most often caused by a virus that spreads quickly from person to person.
Diarrhea from a virus may co-occur with vomiting, and some people also have a fever. Blood in the diarrhea is not a usual symptom of this type of diarrhea.
Bacteria can also cause diarrhea. This can happen after traveling or eating food that contains the bacteria. Bacterial diarrhea can result from food poisoning or a food-borne illness.
There are several types of bacteria that can cause diarrhea, and bacteria can cause other symptoms, including fever, bloody stool, or inflammation (redness and swelling) in the intestine.
Parasites are also a cause of diarrhea, however, these infections are much less common in developed countries. Diarrhea that goes on for more than seven days might be a reason for a doctor to test for a parasitic infection. Along with diarrhea, there may be vomiting, blood in the stool, or inflammation in the intestine.
Too Much Caffeine
Caffeine has an effect on body systems, including the digestive tract. This includes increasing stomach acid and causing the muscles in the digestive tract (called smooth muscles) to relax. It may also increase the risk of inflammation in the digestive system. This could mean that stools become looser.
Stress is felt differently by everyone. For some people, being under extreme stress leads to having diarrhea. The cause of the stress could be anything from college exams to a death in the family.
Side Effect of Medication
Diarrhea is a common adverse effect of medications and supplements. Reading the patient materials or talking to the doctor who prescribed the drug can help in understanding if a medication might cause diarrhea.
Pregnant people may experience diarrhea for various reasons. This can include a change in diet, food sensitivities, or hormonal changes. Sometimes diarrhea in the third trimester is a sign that labor is near. However, diarrhea can continue for some time before active labor starts.
Chronic (long-term) conditions can also cause diarrhea. In these situations, diarrhea may not resolve on its own but may need treatment. This is particularly true if there is a disease that can be progressive (get worse).
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common cause of diarrhea. IBS with diarrhea may be diagnosed in people with abdominal pain at least one day a week and about 25% of bowel movements being diarrhea during the last three months.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) includes Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and indeterminate colitis. These can cause diarrhea, among other symptoms such as blood in the stool, weight loss, and abdominal pain. A diagnosis of IBD is usually made through tests that look at the digestive tract lining to see if there are ulcerations.
Food Allergy or Intolerance
People who eat food they are allergic to may have diarrhea. Food allergies are diagnosed with skin prick or blood tests but might also be diagnosed based on the symptoms after eating the suspected food.
Lactose intolerance can also cause diarrhea. Some people’s bodies do not make the enzyme that can break down the proteins in cow’s milk. It’s a common condition and is usually treated by avoiding milk and milk products.
Risks of Chronic Diarrhea
Having diarrhea for a long time can lead to other health problems. In diarrhea, significant amounts of water and electrolytes (sodium, potassium, and calcium in your blood) can be lost. Replacing them by drinking enough fluids is difficult.
If food is moving too fast through the digestive system, it can also mean that vitamins and minerals are not getting absorbed properly. This could result in vitamin deficiencies.
Persistent diarrhea can also be rough on the skin around the anus (called the perianal skin). Acidic stool and wiping can break the skin down, causing pain or even broken skin and bleeding.
Constant diarrhea could also lead to hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoids are enlarged veins in the anus. They can be painful and cause itching and bleeding. Straining and spending too much time on the toilet could lead to the development of hemorrhoids.
Treatment and Prevention
It may not be possible to avoid diarrhea all the time. However, several things can be done to prevent it.
Handwashing is a way to prevent infectious types of diarrhea. Washing for 20 seconds with soap and water or using a hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
When traveling, it’s important to avoid foods that may contain bacteria. Drinking bottled water, eating only cooked foods, and avoiding ice or undercooked foods are some of the recommendations.
For diarrhea caused by food allergies or lactose intolerance, avoiding the foods that cause symptoms is the only method of prevention.
Antidiarrheal medications might be used for some types of diarrhea. However, these might not be recommended in the case of infection or chronic diarrhea. Talking to a doctor before taking antidiarrheal drugs is a good idea if you’re not sure.
For diarrhea from IBS, a combination of treatments might be used. This can include changes to diet, eating more fiber, psychological therapies, supplements, and medications.
IBD causes inflammation in the digestive tract. Stopping that inflammation is part of treating diarrhea. Some treatments can include dietary changes, psychological therapies, medications, and supplements.
Diarrhea is common, and it usually goes away on its own. If diarrhea continues for several days or causes complications (such as dehydration), it’s important to see a doctor to get treatment. Chronic diarrhea will need to be diagnosed and treated differently than acute diarrhea.
A Word From Verywell
Having diarrhea can be miserable, especially when it’s from an infection that is also causing other symptoms like nausea or vomiting. It can be hard to know when to see a doctor about diarrhea. If someone you are around has been sick with diarrhea and had the stomach flu, the cause might be clear. But it's best to have a doctor diagnose diarrhea that goes on for more than three days and causes dehydration or other complications.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What causes diarrhea with no other symptoms?
Some of the common reasons for diarrhea with no other symptoms could be a medication's adverse effect, too much caffeine, or a food that doesn’t agree with you. These types usually will go away on their own without any treatment.
- Is it normal for diarrhea to wake you up?
Bowel movement consistency can vary. However, watery stools that interrupt sleep are outside of what’s normal. Keeping a food and symptom diary and making some changes to diet and stress levels could be a place to start in stopping the morning diarrhea.
If nothing seems to be helping, talk to a doctor, nurse, dietitian, or any combination of these to get started on figuring out the cause of diarrhea.
- Why does my stomach hurt every morning?
Stomach pains every morning could be as simple as having an empty stomach but could also be a sign of a larger problem. The digestive system is also affected by the brain via the brain-gut connection.
Pain in the morning could be a sign that something about your morning routine needs to be changed. Keeping a symptom and food log can help, but if they don’t, it’s time to see a healthcare professional.
- Can diarrhea be a symptom of anxiety?
Anxiety or emotional stress can lead to diarrhea for some people. In some cases, this could be expected—a stressful event can’t always be avoided. It’s worth addressing stress levels in whatever way that makes sense for you.
However, if the diarrhea is affecting your life, such as by not being able to socialize or do your work, it’s time to see if working with a healthcare professional or a mental health professional can help with anxiety levels.