What causes chronic diarrhea?
Unlike acute diarrhea, which occurs when loose, watery stools subside in a few days or less, chronic diarrhea lasts for more than a week.
There are a ton of things that can trigger chronic diarrhea, including viral infections and powerful prescription medications.
But the #1 cause of this miserable condition that you can do something about right now is DIET.
However, you might be surprised when doctors barely discuss your diet with you, trying to rule certain conditions out, pinpoint a cause, and perhaps prescribe medication.
Functional medicine takes a different route. When someone comes to a natural medicine practitioner with chronic diarrhea, all aspects of their health are examined, not just cut-and-dry symptoms, but seemingly unrelated issues, lifestyle, diet, past health challenges, and more.
This is the holistic way of getting to the root of the problem.
And SO often, the root of the problem is diet.
Read on for the causes of chronic diarrhea and dietary moves you can make to avoid or improve the condition.
Chronic Diarrhea Causes
- DIET– Daily dietary choices have a big impact on whether your gut health is thriving or you may be putting yourself at risk for digestive-related issues like diarrhea, nausea, heartburn, the list goes on. The bottom line? If your diet is out of whack, your gut is too.
- Bacterial infection – Common bacteria that can cause diarrhea include e-coli, salmonella, and more. Doctors may be able to prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection, although sometimes these medications can make diarrhea worse. To avoid these types of infections, be vigilant about washing those hands and avoiding undercooked meat or dirty raw foods such as vegetables and lettuces.
- Viral infection – Just like bacteria, viruses like rotavirus can trigger daily diarrhea. Unfortunately, antibiotics don’t work on these villains. A healthy gut and strong immune system are the best defense.
- Parasites – If you’ve recently been travelling, or maybe you traveled some time ago but have had recurring diarrhea ever since, a parasite may be to blame. It will probably have come from contaminated food or water, but parasites can also be transmitted person to person. Parasites can be difficult to treat with conventional healthcare, but functional medicine can provide an effective plan to eradicate whatever it is that you brought back with you from that backpacking trip.
- Food allergies – It’s really common for children with food allergies or sensitivities to experience chronic diarrhea. It’s their little bodies’ way of saying that certain things are off limits. For now. That’s because many children grow out of food allergies, while they can also just pop up unexpectedly at any point in your life. If you can pinpoint what it is in your diet that is triggering your allergies (with an elimination diet, etc.), you can avoid those foods in the future and look forward to less time on the toilet.
- Antibiotics and medications – Many antibiotics are rough on the digestive system and can cause chronic diarrhea. A lot of that has to do with the balance of your microbiome being disrupted by the medication sent to effectively kill bacteria. That's what antibiotics do. But antibiotics can also kill that good bacteria your gut needs to keep things regulated. Diarrhea is just one of many symptoms that antibiotics can trigger due to their impact on the gut microbiome. Like antibiotics, there are a litany of medications that may be causing your chronic diarrhea:
- Chemotherapy drugs
- Proton pump inhibitors like Prilosec and Prevacid
If you think that certain medications may be causing your chronic diarrhea, have a chat with your doctor about possibly weaning off. Or consult a functional medicine doctor, who can take a holistic look at your situation and see which medications may be eliminated or replaced with natural alternatives.
- Surgery on the digestive system – If you’ve recently had gastrointestinal surgery, you may be more likely to develop chronic diarrhea. Common gastrointestinal surgeries are used to treat conditions like Inflammatory Bowel Disease and hernias and often cause diarrhea while the patient is initially recovering.
- Certain medical conditions like Crohn’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, diabetes, and more. –If you have a condition like Crohn’s disease, diabetes, or Celiac disease, you may be more at risk for chronic diarrhea, as these issues can trigger symptoms.
Let’s circle back for a second.
We just read that Crohn’s disease, et al may cause chronic diarrhea.
But what also underlies AND is used to EFFECTIVELY to treat conditions like Crohn’s disease and diabetes?
Seriously, diet is the single biggest cause of chronic diarrhea.
A big dietary consideration is the amount of soluble fiber you are consuming.
Soluble fiber helps diarrhea by absorbing water and adding bulk to your stools.
Insoluble fiber, which is not digestible, can help with constipation but make diarrhea worse!
Sure, there are potential factors that overlay on top of diet, but looking at what you put into your stomach is the low-hanging fruit.
That’s why we’re devoting a bit more time into dietary causes of chronic diarrhea.
4 Dietary Causes of Chronic Diarrhea
Usually, something you’re putting in or a combination of things you eat and drink are the underlying culprits of daily diarrhea. And the uncomfortable condition usually points to something being ingested excessively, like alcohol or caffeine.
Sometimes, constant diarrhea is the body’s way of saying, “Get back on the wagon!”
No judgement here, but take a look at the top 4 dietary causes of chronic diarrhea. Also keep in mind that limiting these four groups will be a huge win for your overall gut health, not just in the fight against diarrhea or other digestive issues.
If you’ve been regularly drinking alcohol in excess, this may be the smoking gun to your diarrhea problem. That’s because consuming excessive amounts of alcohol — aka binge drinking, being over-served, whatever you want to call it — is like beating the ever-loving crap out of your digestive system. This study shows the number of ways alcohol consumption negatively affects gut health, from erosions to bacterial overgrowth and more, in both chronic alcoholics and acute binge drinkers.
Eliminating alcohol from the diet can often help chronic diarrhea subside. And though the best idea is to stay away from the sauce to help heal your gut, you can introduce a bit of alcohol within moderation once your digestive system is working well again.
Besides food, caffeine is probably the most socially acceptable drug addiction.
No one will judge you for drinking two cups in the morning, another two in the afternoon; however far you want to go, you certainly won’t be reprimanded for it. People won’t even look twice. But like alcohol, taking in high amounts of caffeine can do a number on the digestive system. Diarrhea can flare up from just two to three cups of joe everyday.
You can do the math with energy drinks, shots, sodas, pills, and any of the other ways caffeine is distributed to the masses.
People with chronic diarrhea should get off the lattes either gradually or cold turkey, depending on how much you drink, detox symptoms like headache, etc. Just don’t substitute with tea. Even caffeine-free teas can sometimes have laxative effects. Lay off until your chronic diarrhea has come to an end.
What’s more addictive, caffeine or sugar?
It’s up for debate, but given the alarming increase in American adults with obesity, it’s safe to say that sugar is giving coffee a run for its money for the prize of the most socially acceptable drug addiction.
That’s because sugar affects the brain very similarly to hard drugs like cocaine.
And Americans are highly addicted to sugar.
Sugar is hiding under a sea of pseudonyms like fructose (a particularly bad sugar for diarrhea), sucralose, carbohydrates, etc., especially in the processed foods we love. Sugars dominate the center ring of the supermarket. They’re everywhere!
Sugary foods can trigger diarrhea by negatively impacting the colon. If you had a one-off sugar splurge and get diarrhea, be sure to drink plenty of fluids and it will pass. If you have chronic diarrhea and intake a lot of sugar regularly in your diet, it’s a good time to address your sugar consumption.
When it comes to a specific type of sugar that can cause digestives issues, let's talk for a minute about Lactose.
Lactose is technically a sugar and quite honestly, scary dairy deserves its own article regarding the chronic diarrhea discussion.
Anyone with an issue processing lactose — aka lactose intolerance — and is NOT living the lactose-free (or at least, lactose-minimal) life is highly susceptible to daily diarrhea.
Simply cutting out dairy can have wonderful effects on your overall health, and for those who have a lactose issue, it should clear up your toilet troubles too.
Industrial Seed Oils
Research suggests that industrial seed oils may harm gut health, contributing to conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and chronic diarrhea.
In one study, mice fed a diet high in omega-6 fatty acids from corn oil experienced increases in pro-inflammatory gut bacteria; these changes favor the development of gastrointestinal pathologies, among many other chronic diseases.
Human studies also suggest a link between industrial seed oils and GI conditions. Women with IBS demonstrate significantly elevated levels of arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid abundant in industrial seed oils, and pro-inflammatory PUFA metabolites, compared to healthy controls.
These findings suggest that consuming high levels of omega-6 fatty acids alters the gut microbiota and promotes gastrointestinal inflammation, thereby contributing to the development of IBS and chronic diarrhea.
Since industrial seed oils are the most abundant source of omega-6 fatty acids in the Standard American Diet, it stands to reason that people with digestive issues should avoid these oils and instead consume natural fats from olive oil, coconut oil, wild seafood, nuts and seeds, and healthy animal fats.
What we learned
- Chronic diarrhea occurs when diarrhea symptoms do not clear up in a few days, but instead last for more than a week.
- Chronic diarrhea is caused by a long list of factors, like diet, medications, infections, and allergies.
- Dietary changes are an effective, holistic way to treat certain cases of chronic diarrhea
- Limiting alcohol, caffeine, sugar (& dairy) and industrial seed oils can improve symptoms of chronic diarrhea and gut health in general.
Are you struggling with chronic diarrhea or other digestive health issues?
Functional medicine is your answer to heal from the inside out. Book your free consultation with Dr. Daniel today to start taking control of your health.
Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6234835/
CDC Adult Obesity Facts https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html