What to Do About Loose Stools From IBS

Loose stools are a common symptom of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). People with diarrhea-predominant IBS (IBS-D) have loose stools most of the time. People with IBS-alternating type have loose stools only some of the time, and also constipation at times.

Typically, this symptom is associated with abdominal pain that improves with bowel movements. It may also be associated with diarrhea urgency, or a sudden, immediate need to use the bathroom. At worst, people with this symptom may have fecal incontinence, or bathroom accidents.

If you have this symptom, learning 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. Bile acid diarrhea and antibiotic-associated diarrhea are other possible causes of this symptom. 

This article will discuss some of the causes of loose stool, and offer suggestions for improving this common IBS symptom.

If you have loose stools lasting longer than two weeks, consult a healthcare provider. It is important to get the right diagnosis and treatment.

Why Do People with IBS Have Loose Stools?

The food you eat is first broken down in your stomach. Then it is sent to your small intestine, which absorbs nutrients. The small intestine then sends undigested fiber and water to your large intestine. There, the water is drawn out to form stool.

For reasons that are not yet clear, people with IBS have a change in the speed and appearance of their bowel movements. Loose stools can have a number of causes:

  • Bowel movements that are too fast
  • Intestines secreting too much liquid
  • Food components that draw too much water into the stool

Your healthcare provider can help you manage your IBS symptoms. In the meantime, there are a few things you can try.

Avoid Food and Drink That Can Contribute to Loose Stools

spoonful of cottage cheese

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These foods have a reputation for softening stool:

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

None of these foods are essential for health. They can therefore be safely excluded from your diet.

Don't Eat Too Many Fruits at Once

Fruits are a good source of nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but they also contain fructose.

Human bodies have a limited ability to absorb large amounts of fructose. Too much fruit, too soon, can contribute to loose stools. This happens because excess fructose makes its way into the large intestine, where it may absorb too much water. For some people, a diet low in fructose may improve symptoms.

Don't Take Products Containing Magnesium

Magnesium can act as a laxative. In fact, it is a main ingredient in most prep formulations for colonoscopies.

Be careful you are not taking in large amounts of stool-loosening magnesium. This ingredient may be present in over-the-counter products, so read labels carefully. These products may include magnesium:

  • Antacids, used to relieve heartburn and indigestion
  • Multivitamins
  • Other vitamin formulations

Consider Probiotics

Probiotics are strains of bacteria thought to be beneficial to the digestive tract. Studies suggest they promote a good balance of gut bacteria.

This effect on bacteria in the intestines may help IBS symptoms. A good balance of gut bacteria can reduce gas and help food move through your digestive tract properly. Both these effects can slow the speed of the intestinal contractions that ​contribute to loose stools.

You can also increase your intake of probiotics by changing your diet. The following foods can help:

  • High-fiber foods
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, and kombucha

Over-the-counter probiotic supplements might also help, but they can be expensive, and they are not currently recommended by the American Gastroenterology Association. This is because there isn't enough clinical evidence available to support their use in humans.

Ask Your Healthcare Provider About Fiber Supplements

Fiber supplements, also known as bulk laxatives, are usually recommended for constipation. They can also help with IBS-related loose stools.

Here are some choices:​

  • Fiberall, Genfiber, Konsyl, Metamucil (psyllium)
  • Fibercon, Equalactin (calcium polycarbophil)
  • Citrucel (methylcellulose)

Soluble fiber supplements like psyllium and calcium polycarbophil absorb water. This helps slow down digestion. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to your stools.

Manage Your Stress

The body's natural stress response can speed up intestinal movement. When you reduce stress, your body may retain stool longer. This gives it more time to firm up as water is drawn out.

Whenever possible, try to reduce the amount of stress in your life. Avoid demanding situations or people. If this is not possible, it may help to engage in stress-reducing activities. Here are a few examples:

  • Meditation
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga

Other Causes of Loose Stools

There are many other causes of loose stools. If you haven't been diagnosed with IBS, talk to a healthcare provider. The following questions can help you obtain a correct diagnosis:

  • Have there been any recent changes in the way you eat?
  • Are you on a new medication?
  • Has your water source changed? A new source of water may expose 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

Loose stools can be a symptom of many different health conditions. Here are some of the more common diseases and disorders that your healthcare provider will consider:

The following conditions have very different causes, but loose stools can be a symptom of each:

Symptoms Requiring Immediate Medical Attention

Loose stools can can have many causes. Some, like a mild reaction to food, are not dangerous. Others can be more serious. Loose stools can be a symptom of acute, short-lived illnesses or longer, chronic illnesses.

If you are experiencing loose stools and any of the following symptoms, call a healthcare provider at once:

  • 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

Summary

Loose stools are a common IBS symptom. They can be caused by a change in the speed of your digestive system. 

There are a few things you can try to improve this symptom. Dietary changes like cutting out caffeine and eating less fruit may help. Avoid taking products that contain magnesium and consider probiotics and fiber supplements. It is also a good idea to avoid stress. 

Always ask a healthcare provider for help managing your IBS symptoms. If you do not have an IBS diagnosis, talk to your healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Living with chronic diarrhea can be challenging. Be sure to discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider. It is important to obtain the right diagnosis and treatment.

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