What to Do About Loose Stools From IBS

Loose stools are a primary IBS symptom for individuals who have diarrhea-predominant IBS (IBS-D) and an intermittent symptom for those who have IBS-alternating type. Typically these loose stools are associated with abdominal pain that improves with bowel movements, diarrhea urgency, and, at its worst, bathroom accidents (fecal incontinence).

With these symptoms, knowing how to make your stool firmer and avoiding loose stools can improve your quality of life. The advice here is only for those with a diagnosis of IBS. There are many health conditions that can cause loose stools, such as bile acid diarrhea and antibiotic-associated diarrhea. If you have not yet been seen by your doctor for loose stools lasting longer than two weeks, you need to tell your physician as soon as possible so as to obtain proper diagnosis and treatment.

Why Are Stools Loose vs. Firm?

To help you to understand why your body is producing loose stools, it helps to refresh your memory as to how the digestive system works. In a nutshell, the food that we eat is first broken down in our stomachs, then sent to our small intestines, where nutrients are absorbed. The small intestine then sends the undigested fiber along with water into our large intestine where the water is drawn out to form stool.

As of now, it is not known exactly why people with IBS experience a change in the speed and appearance of their bowel movements. What is known is that loose stools are the result of either bowel movements that are too fast, intestines that are secreting too much liquid, or food components who trigger a process of osmosis drawing too much water into the stool. As you work with your doctor to devise a management plan for your IBS symptoms, there are some self-care tweaks that you can try.

Avoid Food and Drink That Can Contribute to Loose Stools

spoonful of cottage cheese
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The following foods have a reputation for softening stool. Since none of them are essential for health, feel free to delete them from your diet.

  • Sugar-free foods and chewing gums with artificial sweeteners that end in "ol"
  • Caffeine-containing drinks (coffee, soda, tea)

Don't Eat Too Many Fruits at the Same Time

Fruits are a wonderful source of nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. However, they also contain fructose and our bodies have a limited ability to absorb too much fructose at the same time. Too much fruit, too soon, means that excess fructose makes its way into the large intestine where it can draw excessive water into itself contributing to the looseness of your stools.

Don't Take OTC Products Containing Magnesium

Magnesium has a well-established reputation for acting as a laxative. In fact, it is a primary ingredient in most prep formulations for colonoscopies.

Be careful that you are not taking in higher amounts of stool-loosening magnesium from an over-the-counter product without knowing. The following may include magnesium so read labels carefully:

  • Antacids
  • Multivitamins
  • Other vitamin formulations

Consider Probiotics

Probiotics are strains of bacteria thought to be beneficial to the digestive tract. There is evidence they promote a favorable balance of gut bacteria.

This beneficial effect on the bacteria within the intestines may help the body establish improved motility and produce less gas, both of which can slow the speed of intestinal contractions that ​contribute to loose stools.

The American Gastroenterology Association released a 2020 consensus on the use of probiotics for people with irritable bowel syndrome. The majority of gastroenterologists agree that people with irritable bowel syndrome who are symptomatic benefit from taking probiotics. (citation)

You can increase your intake of probiotics by eating a diet rich in fiber, fruits, and vegetables, as well as fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, and kombucha. Over-the-counter probiotic supplements are another option, but can be expensive.

Ask Your Doctor About Fiber Supplements

Although typically recommended to ease constipation, fiber supplements (also known as bulk laxatives) draw water into the stool, helping to firm it up. Here are some choices:​

  • Psyllium (Fiberall, Genfiber, Konsyl, Metamucil)
  • Calcium polycarbophil (Fibercon, Equalactin)
  • Methylcellulose (Citrucel)

Manage Your Stress

Stress has long been known to speed up intestinal movement due to the body's natural stress response. Reducing stress can help your body to establish a better rhythm, retaining stool longer to allow it to be firmed up as water is drawn out. Whenever possible, try to reduce the amount of stress in your life by avoiding demanding situations or individuals. When this is not possible, be sure to engage in activities that offset the effect that stress has on your body. Here are a few to consider:

  • Meditation
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Tai Chi
  • Yoga

Other Causes of Loose Stools

If you haven't been diagnosed with IBS, there can be many other causes of loose stools. As you try to figure out what might be going wrong, and to make sure that you give your doctor information that will be helpful for a correct diagnosis, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Any recent changes in the way you eat?
  • Are you on a new medication?
  • Has your water source changed, exposing you to different types of bacteria?
  • Have you recently traveled?
  • Have you recently experienced food poisoning or some other intestinal illness?
  • Has your stress level been higher than usual?

Health Conditions With Loose Stools as a Symptom

There are a wide variety of health conditions that have loose stools as a symptom. Below you will find some of the more common diseases and disorders that your doctor will be considering as they try to figure out why you are experiencing a change in your bowel habits.

The following health conditions related to food intake may contribute to loose stools:

  • Celiac disease
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Fructose malabsorption
  • Gluten sensitivity
  • Fat malabsorption

Although the following conditions are very different in terms of causation, they share the symptom of loose stools:

  • Crohn's disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Infections: bacterial, food poisoning, parasitic, travelers' diarrhea, viral
  • Post-stomach or intestinal surgery
  • Ulcerative colitis

Symptoms Requiring Immediate Medical Attention

As you can see, the causes of loose stool can range from a mild reaction to the food eaten to a more serious acute or chronic illness.

When to Call the Doctor

If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms alongside your loose stools, it is imperative that you contact a medical professional immediately:

  • Blood or pus in the stool
  • Dehydration
  • Fever that is higher than 102 or lasts longer than three days
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Stool that is black or tarry
  • Unexplained weight loss

A Word From Verywell

It can be challenging to live with chronic diarrhea. Be sure you are discussing it with your healthcare provider to get an appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Diarrhea?

  2. Michigan Medicine. Magnesium.

  3. Hemarajata P, Versalovic J. Effects of probiotics on gut microbiota: mechanisms of intestinal immunomodulation and neuromodulation. Therap Adv Gastroenterol. 2013;6(1):39-51. doi:10.1177/1756283X12459294

  4. Mcrorie JW. Evidence-Based Approach to Fiber Supplements and Clinically Meaningful Health Benefits, Part 2: What to Look for and How to Recommend an Effective Fiber Therapy. Nutr Today. 2015;50(2):90-97. doi:10.1097/NT.0000000000000089

  5. Imodium. Causes of diarrhea: Stress & Anxiety.

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