You might stir from slumber to pee on occasion, but a sudden urge to poop in the middle of the night? Now, that's a different story. And it might make you wonder why you're pooping so much all of a sudden.
"Nocturnal bowel movements are considered an 'alarm symptom' and can signal something is wrong," Maia Kayal, MD, assistant professor in the division of gastroenterology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
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There may be some factor that over-activates bowel receptors to stimulate a bowel movement in the middle of the night or causes damage to the bowel wall, Dr. Kayal explains.
Here's what might be going on when you're waking up to poop.
1. You Have an Infection
A viral or bacterial gastrointestinal infection can cause you to poop more than usual, and it can lead to a sudden urge to poop in the middle of the night.
If you get the stomach flu, for instance, watery diarrhea might be accompanied by abdominal cramping, nausea and vomiting, a low-grade fever and discolored or yellow poop, according to the Mayo Clinic.
It can be hard to hear, but you're probably going to have to ride this out.
"In most cases, vital GI infections ease up on their own. Patients just have to take it easy and replenish their fluids consistently," Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York City-based internist and gastroenterologists, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
If you do see a doctor, they might opt to take a stool sample to identify the bacteria or virus at play and recommend treatment from there, Dr. Sonpal says.
2. It's Something You Ate
One relatively benign reason you might wake up with the urge to poop is if you made some big dietary changes. Certain foods can cause excessive bowel movements, especially when you eat a lot of them, and they could cause nighttime pooping if you eat them close to bedtime:
- Sugar and sugar alternatives such as xylitol, mannitol and sorbitol
- Foods high in insoluble fiber, including nuts, beans and veggies like cauliflower, green beans and potatoes
- Fatty or greasy foods
- Milk or other dairy products (if you're lactose intolerant)
- Spicy food
- Caffeine (found in coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks and chocolate)
3. You Have a Digestive Condition
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) includes Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis; both are marked by long-term inflammation that eventually damages the GI tract, according to the CDC. IBD flares can affect you at any time of day, including waking you up to poop in the middle of the night, Dr. Kayal says.
What differentiates IBD from another cause are other symptoms that tag along with pooping at night.
"You will typically lose weight when you poop, and have other symptoms like abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, fluffy poop or floating poop, fecal urgency or oral ulcers in addition to nocturnal bowel movements," Dr. Kayal says.
You'll want to pay attention to how long you've been dealing with this nighttime disturbance.
Waking up to poop every once in a while might not actually be a problem, Dr. Sonpal says, but "if it becomes a chronic, regular occurrence where you are sleeping and being woken up and physically compelled to go relieve yourself, that could signal something that needs a doctor's attention."
You'll need to schedule an in-person — not virtual — visit, Dr. Sonpal says. Endoscopy, colonoscopy, MRI or CT scans, as well as stool samples and blood tests may all be used in diagnosis, the CDC notes.
It's also worth noting that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — a much less severe GI condition — is not typically associated with pooping in the middle of the night, Dr. Kayal says.
How Often Should You Poop?
If you're pooping a lot more all of a sudden, you might wonder if it's normal to poop five times a day or more. In general, it's considered normal to have a bowel movement anywhere from three times per day to three times per week, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
If you are consistently pooping more or less than that, see a doctor. They'll likely want to run some tests and may reference the Bristol Stool Chart — the poop chart, which breaks down the seven types of poop and healthy vs. unhealthy stool shapes.
4. You Have Food Poisoning
The chicken you ordered didn't look suspect or the tuna poke bowl tasted just fine, but here you are, waking up with diarrhea in the middle of the night.
Foodborne "GI infections cause activation of the immune system and the release of inflammatory mediators and cytokines that can directly act on the bowel and stimulate diarrhea," Dr. Kayal says.
They can also produce toxins that damage the bowel, another factor that contributes to loose, unhealthy stools, she says.
It might be agony now, but you'll slowly recover.
In the meantime, diarrhea — especially a bad case — can cause poop sweats along with dehydration if you're not consuming liquids like water and soup.
See your doctor if you also have a fever, bloody diarrhea, severe abdominal pain or have dark urine or get dizzy with standing, which are symptoms of dehydration, Dr. Kayal says.
5. Your Medication Has Some Surprising Side Effects
Are you taking a new medication?
If your nocturnal bowel movements are new, consider any recently prescribed or over-the-counter medication that you're taking. Dr. Kayal adds that medications like antibiotics, NSAIDs (like ibuprofen), chemotherapy drugs and drugs that contain magnesium (like antacids) may keep you from having healthy stool.
Antibiotics, for example, can change the balance of gut bacteria, leading to diarrhea that won't go away or bad-smelling poop. Before taking an anti-diarrheal medication to stop the runs, talk to your doctor.
6. You're Sleep-Deprived
If you have digestive conditions like IBD, a lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can cause your symptoms to flare up, per a February 2022 study in Gastroenterology.
A buildup of restless nights can throw off your pooping schedule during the day, causing you to wake up with the urge to poop.
Is It Normal to Poop in Your Sleep?
No, it's not normal to poop in your sleep. It typically means you have incontinence caused by nerve damage or another underlying issue, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.
7. It’s Something Else
Hyperthyroidism (an "overactive thyroid") and neuroendocrine tumors are two additional conditions to have on your radar if you're waking up to poop, Dr. Kayal says.
Hyperthyroidism is when the thyroid gland makes too much thyroid hormone, according to the Mayo Clinic, which can speed up your metabolism. In addition to more frequent bowel movements, symptoms often include weight loss, a fast or irregular heartbeat, hand tremors, sweating, fatigue, muscle weakness and fine, brittle hair.
Neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) are cancerous tumors that can occur anywhere on the body, including in the GI system like the small intestine, rectum and pancreas, per the Mayo Clinic.
"These conditions cause increased bowel movements in general by acting on different bowel receptors or by damaging the bowel lining," Dr. Kayal says.
In addition to diarrhea, you might also experience unintentional weight loss and fatigue. Talk to your doctor who can conduct tests to rule out IBD or other diseases that affect your digestive system.
When to See a Doctor
Waking up to poop in the middle of the night just one time may not be cause for concern. But if you're pooping a lot all of a sudden and experiencing other symptoms along with the urgent nocturnal bowel movements — like blood in the stool, abdominal cramping, weakness and fatigue, fever or weight loss — and your symptoms are long-lasting, you should visit your doctor to get treated.
If you seek treatment for frequent pooping at night, your doctor will offer options based on the cause. They will most likely start by getting a sense of your symptoms and may take a stool sample as well.
Then they can prescribe medication or suggest lifestyle changes like getting better sleep and reducing stress to ease symptoms.
How Come I Wake Up in the Morning to Poop?
If you have to poop when you wake up in the morning, you're in good company. Most people get the urge to go about a half hour after waking up, says Jill Deutsch, MD, a Yale Medicine gastroenterologist. That's because your gut has its own internal "clock." In the morning, this clock triggers the release of hormones like cortisol that cause the colon to contract, pushing poop forward in your rectum. Essentially, it's your gut's way of clearing out what's built up from the day before to make way for the next day's meals.
Can Anxiety Cause You to Poop in the Middle of the Night?
The short answer is yes. Anxiety poops are a thing, according to the Cleveland Clinic. They happen because the gut and the mind are connected, so the hormones stirred up when you're anxious can affect your bowel movements. More specifically, anxiety can cause a "clenching" in your body, and when that's released and your body relaxes (like when you're sleeping), you may feel the urge to poop.
- Mayo Clinic: “Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu)”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “What is inflammatory bowel disease?”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Drug-induced diarrhea”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea”
- Mayo Clinic: “Neuroendocrine tumors”
- Cleveland Clinic: "How Often and How Long Should It Take You to Poop?"
- University of Michigan: "Bristol Stool Chart"
- Gastroenterology: "People with IBD Want to Talk About Sleep: Recommendations on What to Ask and How to Respond to Sleep Complaints"
- Communications Biology: "Role of Sleep Deprivation in Immune-Related Disease Risk Outcomes"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Fecal Incontinence in Women: Q&A with an Expert"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Nervous Poops: Here's Why They Happen"
- Mayo Clinic: "Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.