What Causes Loose Stools?

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 Loose StoolsTo understand what causes loose stools, it’s important to get some basic clarification out of the way.

A loose stool is a bowel movement that does not retain a fixed shape and appears “mushy.” Loose stool may be foul smelling (more so than normal feces) and its frequency can also vary between individuals, with some experiencing loose stools right after eating, others having loose stools only in the morning, and others sometimes seeing loose stools for an entire week or more.

Regardless of how you experience a loose stool, it’s important to understand the cause. Without knowing the source of your problem, a treatment for loose stools is going to be much harder to obtain.


Regarding Diarrhea

Although the two overlap, a loose stool does not necessarily indicate diarrhea. Diarrhea is characterized by repeated, watery bowel movements while a stool’s “looseness” relates to fecal consistency. It’s possible to have loose stool even if the frequency isn’t enough to indicate diarrhea. In other words, although diarrhea almost always involves loose stool, the reverse is not automatically true.

That said, loose stool and diarrhea do share some of the same causes and treatments as well as other associated symptoms. The main takeaway is that, when talking to your doctor, it’s important to mention the frequency with which you are passing stool in addition to the consistency of the stool itself.

What Causes Loose Stools?

The short answer is “quite a lot.” The long answer is below.

1. Malabsorption

Stool consistency is determined largely by water but also by fat, bile, protein, and starch content (or lack thereof). Certain conditions that interfere with how nutrients are broken down and absorbed can result in loose stools. This happens usually because the malabsorption results in too much of certain substances (like undigested fats) getting left in the stool or because it’s interfering with the function of the liver or pancreas. Crohn’s disease and Celiac disease are two of the more notable malabsorption disorders, but there are others. Additionally, radiation treatment to the abdominal area can temporarily cause malabsorption and the ensuing loose stools and/or diarrhea.

2. Irritable Bowel Syndrome

In addition to causing bouts of diarrhea and other gastrointestinal distress, IBS is a possible candidate for what causes loose stools in the morning or throughout the day. IBS takes several forms, and in the diarrhea-predominant form, the contractions of the intestinal tract are too strong and last longer than normal. This passes along food and water too quickly, resulting in loose stools.

3. Food Poisoning

Whether bacterial, viral, or parasitic, foodborne illness can often result in loose stools. This is often the result of gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and the intestines. The inflammation tends to result in loose stools and stomach cramps and provokes your body into expelling waste faster than normal. This prevents water from being properly reabsorbed by the colon and results in loose, diarrheic stools. If the condition is bacterial, a loose, foul smelling stool may also be present. As unpleasant as it can be, diarrhea, in this case, serves a similar purpose to a cough in the sense that your body is trying to expel something that shouldn’t be there. Since food poisoning is one of the few causes of loose stools that is normally time-limited, it’s often what causes loose stools for a week or any similarly modest time frame.

4. Dumping Syndrome

The blunt, but appropriately named dumping syndrome (also called “rapid gastric emptying”) is when food gets “dumped” into the small intestine at an unnaturally fast rate. Those who experience dumping syndrome may find themselves having a bowel movement within half an hour of a meal. Since this doesn’t allow for proper bulking or water absorption, the dumping syndrome is one possible explanation for what causes loose stools right after eating. Dumping syndrome’s loose stools and diarrhea can be accompanied by stomach cramps, but not to the same severity as those seen in food poisoning. The syndrome is a known complication that can arise after certain stomach or esophageal surgeries both for medical and weight-loss purposes and is most commonly linked to gastric bypass operations.

5. Hyperthyroidism

Also known as an overactive thyroid, hyperthyroidism is when the overproduction of the hormone thyroxine kicks your metabolism into high gear. This results in loose stools and diarrhea since your body is now trying to process food faster than it is actually capable. Other symptoms of hyperthyroidism include rapid heartbeat, unexpected weight loss, anxiety and irritability, hand and finger tremors, sleep disruptions, brittle hair, thinning skin, and sleep disruptions.

6. Lactose Intolerance

Lactose is capable of causing loose stools if it isn’t broken down by the time it reaches the colon. For most people, this isn’t an issue since their body has enough of the lactase enzyme to perform the task. Lactose intolerance is an inability to process lactose due to a lactase deficiency and sufferers can experience loose stools following the consumption of milk or dairy products.

7. Medication

Various drugs are capable of causing diarrhea or loose stools as a side effect. Some can also cause constipation and indirectly result in a loose stool if you try to use a laxative to compensate. If you begin to experience loose stools when you begin taking a medication, talk to your doctor about your concerns but do not stop taking the medicine without their approval.

8. Herbal Products

Various herbal products can also cause loose stools or diarrhea if they contain ingredients such as senna leaf. Any herbal product taken to promote weight loss should be considered to have a higher risk of this happening, even if the ingredient list says otherwise. The FDA has limited (or no) power to regulate herbal products, and many contain ingredients not listed on the label. When it comes to herbal products that are marketed for weight loss, laxatives are a common adulterant.

9. Obstruction or Constipation

Any obstruction in the bowel, whether from a foreign object, a tumor, or a fecal impaction can result in loose stool. As hard feces builds up against the blockage, softer, a liquid stool is able to seep around and get passed. Bowel obstructions usually come with a firmness or pain in the lower abdomen and sometimes with a “quivering” sensation.

Treating Loose Stools Naturally

Whether you are looking for how to treat loose stools in adults or children, the only proven natural remedy is a dietary adjustment, which can be broken down into a few approaches. Unfortunately, there is no natural answer for how to cure loose stools that apply to every possible cause. Although there are some dietary treatment options for loose stools (described below), they do not work as well on long-term disorders like hyperthyroidism. Still, most people who experience loose stools do so from causes that a dietary approach can help.

1. Fiber!
Fiber is your friend. Fiber is good for diarrhea and loose stool in general, but how well it works and which type of fiber you should lean toward will depend on your specific problem. Insoluble fiber cannot be dissolved in water and so passes through your system whole to the bowel where it adds bulk and solidity to your stool. Soluble fiber dissolves into a sort of gel that slows down the small intestine, allowing more time for nutrient absorption. Soluble fiber also adds more water to your bowel movements, which eases in their passage.

Fiber-containing foods usually have both varieties but lean towards one form more than the other:

  • Soluble fiber is more prominent in apples, beans, oatmeal, and nuts.
  • Insoluble fiber can be found more predominantly in things like whole wheat, brown rice, and seeds.

2. Stay Hydrated
Keeping up your fluid intake is very important if your loose stools come with diarrhea or vomiting, the latter of which can happen in food poisoning. Diarrhea and vomiting can dehydrate you quickly and will wildly throw off your electrolyte balance, among other consequences. If you are in a position where you cannot keep liquids down (such as the aforementioned food poisoning), sucking on ice chips can help provide hydration at a slow, manageable rate.

3. Honey
Honey has one of the more established anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties among food options and can be added to your diet as a way to help soothe an aggravated intestinal tract. Obviously, this won’t have a chance of working unless your loose stools are the result of an inflamed intestine, especially one caused by a bacterial infection.

4. Stop Taking Herbs
If you are taking herbal product or supplement, stop for a week or two and see if that helps. You may have been unknowingly giving yourself a laxative.

Preventing Loose Stools

In addition to steps you can take to try to stop loose stools once they start happening, there are a few proactive measures you can use to prevent reoccurrence or to avoid dealing with them in the first place. With regards to how to prevent loose stools in the morning or throughout the day, it’s important to remember that the timing of your bowel movements has to do more with personal metabolism and when you eat, even if you have an underlying disorder. Therefore, while these prevention methods may help keep your stool nice and firm, they may not change what time you actually go to the bathroom.

  • Medication adjustment: If you are on medication that causes loose stools as a side effect, talk to your doctor about possible alternatives or dose adjustments. As mentioned, it’s very important that you do not reduce the dose or stop taking your medicine without your doctor’s approval—you were prescribed it for a reason, after all.
  • Probiotics: Healthy intestinal flora does not automatically protect you against loose stools, but it does make it harder for bacterial ailments to establish themselves. Probiotic foods such as yogurt can be a good way to replenish your gut bacteria if you have recently taken an antibiotic or gotten over an illness.
  • Avoiding triggers: Incidences of dumping syndrome can be mitigated or avoided by making certain adjustments following your surgery. Smaller meals and limiting sugar intake reduces the likelihood of food getting dumped without proper processing.

If you are lactose intolerant, avoiding dairy is highly advisable. The same applies to someone with Celiac disease and gluten.

When to See a Doctor

When dealing with bowel movements, there are certain warning signs that could suggest a more serious problem is going on. Speak with your doctor if your loose stools are accompanied by any of the following:

  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Black, tar-like stools (diarrhea or not)
  • Fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit that lasts more than a day
  • Diarrhea lasting two days or more
  • Nausea or vomiting that prevents you from drinking fluids
  • Severe rectal or abdominal pain
  • Stool issues began after returning from overseas

Read Next:

Sources for Today’s Article:
St. John, T., “What Causes Loose Stools in Adults?” Livestrong web site, last updated November 2, 2013; http://www.livestrong.com/article/149664-what-causes-loose-stools-in-adults/, last accessed April 7, 2016.
“Diarrhea: Why it Happens and How to Treat It,” Web MD web site, last reviewed June 27. 2015; http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/digestive-diseases-diarrhea, last accessed April 7, 2016.
“What Causes Loose Stools?.” Med-Health web site, last updated April 7, 2016; http://www.med-health.net/What-Causes-Loose-Stools.html, last accessed April 7, 2016.
“Hyperthyroidism: Symptoms,” Mayo Clinic web site, October 28, 2015; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hyperthyroidism/basics/symptoms/con-20020986, last accessed April 7, 2016.
“Dumping Syndrome: Definition,” Mayo Clinic web site, June 10, 2015; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dumping-syndrome/basics/definition/con-20028034, last accessed April 7, 2016.

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Dr. Richard Foxx, MD

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Richard M. Foxx, MD has decades of medical experience with a comprehensive background in endocrinology, aesthetic and laser medicine, gynecology, and sports medicine. He has extensive experience with professional athletes, including several Olympic competitors. Dr. Foxx practices aesthetic and laser medicine, integrative medicine, and anti-aging medicine. He is the founder and Medical Director of the Medical and Skin Spa located in Indian Wells, California, at the Hyatt Regency Resort. Dr. Foxx is certified by the National Board of Medical Examiners... Read Full Bio »