Worldwide, there are approximately 1.7 billion cases of diarrheal disease every year, killing around 760,000 children.1 In the U.S., adults have at least one episode of diarrhea, while children get at least two bouts of this illness, annually.2,3 This is a very common ailment that can become serious, but you can help prevent it as long as you are aware of its causes.
Common Reasons for Having Diarrhea
According to the Mayo Clinic, diarrhea happens when the food and fluids you consume pass too quickly or in too large an amount (or both) through your large intestine. Normally, the liquids from the food you eat are absorbed by the colon, which results in a semi-solid stool, but if these liquids aren't absorbed properly, a watery bowel movement will occur.4
There are many possible reasons you can get diarrhea, with the most common ones being:5
- Gastrointestinal (GI) tract infection. This can be caused by bacteria, viruses and parasitic organisms. Acute diarrhea is frequently due to by E. coli, Salmonella, Shigella and Campylobacter infection.6 These microbes usually spread through contaminated food and water, typically affecting areas where there is inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.7
- Digestive disorders. The most common causes of chronic diarrhea are irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease and diverticular disease. It can also develop because of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.8
- Medications. Antibiotics can disturb the natural balance of bacteria in your gut. In some cases, this can lead to Clostridium difficile bacterial infection, one of the most frequent reasons hospitalized patients get diarrhea.9
- Certain foods. Some people have difficulty digesting particular foods. For example, a person with lactose intolerance can't digest the sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Other foods that can cause diarrhea are gluten, wheat and spicy or fatty foods.10
- Stress. Just like your brain, the gut is very sensitive as it is full of nerves. According to Dr. Francisco Marrero, a gastroenterologist with the Digestive Disease Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, there's a direct link between your brain and gut. Next to your brain, the gut is the largest area of nerves in your body, and this is the reason it is often called "the little brain." This is why you can get butterflies in your stomach or even suffer from a bout of diarrhea during stressful situations.11
Diarrhea May Also Occur Because of These Unusual Causes
You can also have an episode of diarrhea because of uncommon reasons, such as:12
- Intense exercise. After a long run or heavy weightlifting session, blood supply is diverted from the digestive tract to your muscles, causing abnormal cramping and loose stools.
- Alcohol. Beer or malt liquor has a high amount of carbohydrates, which are fermented in the colon, causing gas, bloating and liquid bowel movements. Alcohol has a stimulating effect on the GI tract as well, making your intestinal muscles more active.
Although some causes of diarrhea are unavoidable, such as disorders of the digestive system, there are others that you can stay away from. For instance, you can avoid the use of antibiotics, unless absolutely necessary, because they kill both good and bad bacteria in the colon.13 Most GI infections can also be prevented through simple measures like washing your hands thoroughly, especially before eating and after using the bathroom.14