Until last night, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid had been struggling against the Toronto Raptors. After a dominating performance in Game Three of the Conference Semifinals between the two teams — finishing with 33 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks — he scraped together just 24 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks in Games Four and Five of the series combined.
The phenom who has shown flashes of being a once-in-a-lifetime talent had been held down by something that affects all great men: the shits.
“I’m just not myself,” Embiid told reporters after Game Four of the series, according to The Washington Post. “I didn’t have a good night… If you’re throwing up and you can’t really sleep and you need an IV, then it has to be pretty bad… I’m just not myself.”
“[Embiid] said nothing; he had been quiet during much of the evening, and much of this series, as he glumly tussled with [Raptors center] Marc Gasol in the high post, except now in this quiet facility he seemed even more distant, staring out through the doorway into the visitors’ locker room where his victorious teammates tidied up and got spiffy for the postgame. Embiid felt neither tidy nor spiffy. The two trainers knew, as did Embiid’s teammates who dressed nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, laid low by the doo-doo ass.”
In short, Embiid, who has become one of the league’s most outspoken, confident and jovial players, has been robbed of all that charm and personality thanks to the inescapably human curse of untimely diarrhea. “On Sunday night, the fun stopped,” writes Candace Buckner in The Washington Post. “Instead of spreading his arms and taking flight downcourt, Embiid lumbered to huddles with a slight hitch.”
Logan, a 23-year-old in New Jersey, suffers from IBS and intimately knows how an untimely bout of diarrhea can dull your mental sharpness and focus. For him, it began in 2017, when he says “every day began to feel like a ‘bad stomach day.’”
“It became mentally draining,” he continues. “And it didn’t take me long to realize just how much my IBS was contributing to both my depression and anxiety. I’d have this internal panic about whether or not my stomach would be okay that day. It pretty much controlled my life until I better learned how to manage it.”
“It’s like a nonstop cycle,” he adds. “If my stomach starts to hurt, or I worry about it hurting, I start to get anxiety. If I’m already having anxiety over something else, my stomach starts to hurt, and then I start getting all my IBS symptoms.”
But why does a bad case of the shits cut right to our psyche, sinking even the most confident man in basketball?
“It would appear that belly pain could cause problems in at least two ways,” says Marc Leavey, a physician in Maryland. “First, very directly, any discomfort that one is having can impact on concentration and ability. Whether a sore belly or a sore toe, if one is distracted by a pain or discomfort, they’re often not able to give the best effort toward a goal.” He adds that when it comes to physical goals like in the case of Embiid — the acute, quick focus necessary is near impossible when all you can think about is not shitting yourself. “Anything that could place a troubling thought below the surface could impact actions that rely on clear analysis of the situation and immediate response,” he explains.
If this sounds anecdotally obvious, know that the research backs it up. Maybe more interestingly, Leavey says there’s an increasing amount of study in what’s called the “gut-brain connection,” and how microbes in our bowels can affect mental health, if not mental illness. He specifically points to a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome with the title, “Microbial Regulation of MicroRNA Expression in the Amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex,” which “looked at the relationship of the bacterial inhabitants of the gut and their relationship to psychiatric and neurologic disorders.”
“The authors found that a healthy microbiome is needed for healthy related brain functions,” Leavey says. “One might derive from this that illnesses that disrupt the normal bowel flora — ranging from gastroenteritis to more serious types of bowel disease — could thus impact brain functioning.”
He adds that another study from 2015 suggests a connection between bowel health and behavioral changes: “Medical World News reported on studies that showed, ‘alterations to gut bacteria as a result of stress in early life may play a key role in the development of anxiety and depression in adulthood.”
Claudia Luiz, a New York-based psychoanalyst, agrees that gut health is becoming more and more recognized as a key to optimal mental health, “particularly where anxiety and depression are concerned.” As for Embiid, per Luiz, the connection between what’s going on in his brain and what’s happening in his stomach “is largely thanks to neurotransmitters [like] serotonin that live in the gut. When these levels are off, anxiety in particular, shows up,” she explains.
“So returning to the original question,” Leavey concludes, “could abdominal pain affect a player in the NBA playoffs? Based on these studies and observations, it’s entirely likely.”