What's the Link Between Sleep and Sudden Urge To Poop in the Middle of the Night?

A lack of sleep could be causing a poop emergency in the middle of the night. Here's why.

Not getting enough sleep (a habit that many of us are guilty of) can throw off your entire day. But a lack of sleep is more than just a mood ruiner. It's also associated with some pretty negative effects on your health—and, believe it or not, your bathroom behavior.

Digestive health experts have long believed that sleep quality and gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms such as bloating, constipation, and diarrhea are connected in some way, especially among people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Research even suggests that sleep disruptions might trigger flare-ups of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Sleep disorders and poor sleep may also affect the immune system and, in turn, GI health. For example, a 2021 study published in the journal Nature explained how sleep deprivation increases inflammation in the body, which in turn affects the immune system—when then sets you up for chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disease (talk about a dominoes effect).

But there's still some uncertainty around whether a lack of sleep or low-quality sleep can be considered a direct cause of poop problems, Kyle D. Staller, MD, MPH, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Health.

Certainly, said Dr. Staller, people who already deal with IBS or other gastrointestinal discomforts may very well notice that their symptoms get worse when they aren't sleeping well. "Poor sleep is likely going to exacerbate or worsen certain GI issues," said Dr. Staller. It's possible, said Dr. Staller, that you could go several nights without quality rest and notice an increase in discomfort, diarrhea, or suboptimal poops in the following days.

But, added Dr. Staller, there's also a chance your GI issues are so intense that they interfere with your sleep. So instead of sleep affecting your GI issues, your GI issues affect your sleep. Waking up in the middle of the night with the urgent need to poop is sure to mess with your sleep—although, for the record, it's also likely a sign of an infection and worth discussing with your healthcare provider.

Until more research is done, a sort of chicken-or-egg question remains: Does poor sleep cause poop problems, or are poop problems wrecking your sleep? Dr. Staller suggested that it's better to think of sleep as a "volume control" for preexisting gut issues than as a direct trigger for them. Getting a good night's rest can act as a solid preventive health measure, and if you're already living with GI discomfort or IBS, it won't hurt to work on improving your sleep schedule.

"It's a way to potentially control symptoms, without going to the medication route," said Dr. Staller. "And many patients are interested in a more natural approach to their IBS."

If you're among the 10 to 15% of US adults with IBS, try establishing a bedtime routine that features a consistent schedule and rituals that ensure restful, high-quality sleep—like keeping your bedroom dark, cool, and free of screens. If nothing else, better sleep could reduce the amount of stress you live with—which could improve your digestive health too.

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