Most people experience stress at various points in their lives. It could be when we're taking a big exam, when we’re starting at a new school or a new job, or when we’re experiencing a challenging situation at work, with friends, or with family. While a little stress is common and can even be good for us sometimes, if it becomes overwhelming and goes on for long periods without relief, it can have mental, emotional, and physical effects—including constipation.
If this is something you are experiencing, it can feel very frustrating. In this article, we will explore the physical and mental effects of stress, why stress can cause constipation, and ways to address and prevent stress-related constipation.
The Physical And Mental Effects Of Stress
Some of the physical, emotional, and psychological effects of stress can include:
- Chest pain
- Muscle tension
- Digestive problems
These are just a few examples, and there may be more somatic symptoms like fatigue. As the American Psychological Association (APA) details, physical, emotional, and psychological stress leads to an impact on “all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.” Stress can also make your body’s adrenal glands release adrenaline. This chemical is commonly associated with the “fight or flight” response. In the gastrointestinal system, stress can impact how fast food moves through the body, “which can cause either diarrhea or constipation.”
Stress And Constipation
Now that we understand the many possible effects of stress, let’s explore the link between stress and constipation in particular.
"Constipation" is a term used to describe having infrequent bowel movements, generally fewer than three bowel movements a week. This indicates a reduction in intestinal movement. While intestinal movement slows naturally from time to time and experiencing constipation is common, “chronic constipation,” according to the Mayo Clinic, involves experiencing infrequent bowel movements or difficult passage of stools for several weeks or more.
There are several constipation symptoms one may experience. While your situation may differ and constipation symptoms vary, here are a few of the signs you may be experiencing this intestinal issue.
- You have fewer than three bowel movements a week
- You have hard or lumpy stools
- You are experiencing abdominal fullness
- You are straining to go
- You have a feeling that you are not getting everything out
Leaving these unaddressed can aggravate gastrointestinal symptoms. If ignored for significant lengths of time, chronic constipation could lead to hemorrhoids, fecal impaction, or anal fissure, among other complications. Constipation can also affect blood flow to the surrounding vital organs. In some cases, it can divert blood flow due to the blockage, causing an increase in blood pressure and damage to your cardiovascular system.
Why Does Stress Cause Constipation?
Stress may cause constipation for a few reasons. First, the physical effects of stress hormones on the body can cause constipation. The gut is its own ecosystem, and having healthy gut bacteria can be important. In fact, there may be more neurons in your gut than in your entire spinal cord. Because of the importance of the gut and normal healthy bacteria, constipation can be one way that your body registers stress.
In addition, when you are stressed, you may be too overwhelmed to take good care of yourself. This may cause dietary and physical lifestyle changes, like:
- Drinking less water
- Skipping meals
- Eating unhealthy foods
- Not exercising
- Shallow breathing
All of these changes may contribute to both the stress you are experiencing and the constipation.
How To Prevent and Relieve Stress-Related Constipation
Experiencing constipation can be uncomfortable, frustrating and cause physical symptoms like stomach pain. But, by incorporating healthy habits for your physical and mental health, you can reduce stress and help prevent such stress-related constipation.
If this is something you’re concerned about, you might consider some of the following approaches:
Maintain A Healthy Diet And Exercise Routine
As discussed above, one way that stress can cause constipation is through its impact on our habits—for many of us, when we become stressed, we may stop eating well, drinking enough water, and getting adequate exercise. Even if we don’t get constipation, we may experience other gastrointestinal symptoms or changes in our stool (like lumpy stool bowel movements).
With this in mind, a key approach to reducing or preventing stress-related constipation can be to make changes to your diet to ensure you’re drinking plenty of water, eating balanced meals, and getting enough fiber. Not only can these actions help with prevention, they can also relieve constipation in some cases. For guidance before making dietary changes, it is best to consult with your doctor.
In addition, maintaining an exercise regimen can help. Exercise can help control your bowel movements while also helping with stress relief. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week—and even just walking can be a great option.
Care For Your Mental Health
Along with diet and exercise, finding ways to reduce stress and care for your mental health can help. To reduce stress, consider incorporating meditation, breathing, mindfulness, and relaxation exercises into your daily routine.
If you would like further assistance with stress management skills or want help with any mental health conditions you may be experiencing, consider consulting a mental health professional who can work with you to help reduce and cope with stress. And, if you are feeling stressed, know that you are not alone: these feelings are widespread. The APA conducts an annual survey regarding the state of stress in the United States. In October 2022, they found that more than 25% of U.S. adults reported that most days they are “so stressed they can’t function.”
For some people, traveling to an in-person therapy appointment can be an additional layer of stress—given transportation, possible traffic, and sitting in a new office with a new person. With online therapy through BetterHelp, you can connect with a therapist from the comfort of your own home or wherever you have an internet connection, without the stress of a commute.
One research study examined the effectiveness of internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) to reduce stress in individuals experiencing elevated stress or stress-related disorders. The study concluded that the results provided evidence of the “efficacy of ICBT to reduce stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms in adults experiencing challenges withfrom elevated stress or stress-related disorders.”
Read below for a couple of reviews of BetterHelp counselors:
"Lisa is extremely easy to talk to and is always willing to talk to you at any time. Her schedule is flexible which makes it convenient to work into a busy daily schedule. She is knowledgeable and is helpful in understanding why I am stressed and helps to work through it to destress and move forward, including short and long term goals."
"Elizabeth is amazing! I began counseling because I was in a huge transitional phase. My entire life was turned over. Elizabeth helped me manage my stress, encouraged me to take good care of myself, and steered me away from beating myself up for things that were out of my control. I'm so grateful for her guidance and insights. This has been the best counseling experience I've ever had."
How do you relieve constipation from stress?
If you’re experiencing constipation from stress, there are several ways to relieve your symptoms.
- Evaluate your diet and exercise routine and make healthy changes as needed. These alterations could include drinking more water, increasing your physical activity, and avoiding any foods that may worsen your stress or constipation.
- Find ways to manage and reduce stress. Stress management is a core aspect of mental health. While stress is an unavoidable reality of life, there are many ways to feel less stressed and more in-tune with your body: from breathing and mindfulness exercises to spending more time with loved ones.
- Get a full medical examination. In some cases, constipation may result from an inflammatory bowel disease or functional gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome. A licensed doctor can diagnose and offer treatment options to address any physical causes of your constipation. Treatment plans may include stress management techniques, medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes.
Can stress and anxiety cause constipation?
Yes, both stress and anxiety can cause constipation.
As two distinct emotional responses, anxiety and stress are associated with different causes and emotions but often have similar physical effects. Whereas stress is typically caused by an external trigger, anxiety is characterized by persistent, excessive worries, even in the absence of a stressor.
The human digestive system is sensitive to both anxiety and stress, which can divert blood flow toward the vital organs and cause vascular problems, ultimately leading to constipation.
People experiencing stress and anxiety may also encounter sleep disturbances, which can cause or worsen their bowel dysfunction. In general, both anxiety and stress can lead to a variety of digestive issues – including bloating, loss of appetite, and stomach pain – that may occur alongside constipation.
Why can stress cause constipation?
Stress can cause constipation for several reasons:
- Stress promotes the release of hormones in the body that slow down digestive processes and may cause constipation.
- Stress may also affect the production of healthy bacteria in the gut, which are associated with regular, healthy bowel habits.
- People experiencing high stress may also neglect their normal diets or exercise routines and not consume enough water, nutritious food, or get adequate exercise. Any of these changes can increase the likelihood of constipation.
Researchers are still studying how and why stress can cause constipation. Some gastrointestinal researchers study the role of increased “intestinal permeability”, which occurs when waste becomes trapped in the intestines. The resulting blockage can lead to gut inflammation, abdominal pain, and other symptoms of constipation.
Several studies demonstrate that stress can lead to issues with intestinal permeability, which can increase the risk of developing gut-related disorders – many of which include constipation as a symptom.
Can stress affect poop?
Yes, stress can affect the frequency and appearance of poop. While every person’s body reacts to stress differently, your bowel movement may be larger, smaller, or less frequent than your “normal” routine when you’re under stress.
You may also have hard or lumpy stools, feel like you’re not getting everything out, and have fewer than three bowel movements a week. Although constipation is a common response to stress, other people experience the opposite concern – diarrhea – and notice looser, more frequent stools.
Can lack of sleep cause constipation?
Yes, lack of sleep can cause constipation in some people. A 2022 study recently found that men who slept for shorter durations were more likely to experience constipation; compared to women, whose risk of constipation was higher when they slept in excess. Another 2022 study found that people living with both functional constipation and sleep deficiency had more severe constipation symptoms, irrespective of gender.
More research is needed to expand on and understand these results, but the current science indicates that constipation risk may be affected by a lack or excess of sleep, with variations based on gender and other factors.
What does stress constipation feel like?
Stress constipation can make you feel bloated, fatigued, and generally unwell, both physically and psychologically. Compared to generalized constipation, stress-induced constipation usually feels quite similar, but may correspond with other stress-related symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and feelings of depression or anxiety.
How long can constipation last?
Constipation can last for a few days, several weeks, or even months, depending on the severity of the blockage and the treatments used to ease constipation.
Chronic constipation is characterized by the difficult passage of stools for several weeks or more. Generally, people experiencing constipation have fewer than three bowel movements a week. They should consult a medical professional if their constipation lasts longer than three weeks or they experience any other concerning symptoms, such as severe pain or bloody stools.
What foods lead to constipation?
Some foods that can lead to constipation include:
- Red meat and other high-fat meats: These meats are low in fiber and high in saturated fats, which can make constipation worse.
- Dairy products: A high-dairy diet tends to lack fiber, which can trigger constipation.
- Unripe bananas and persimmons: These fruits contain specific compounds that may cause or worsen constipation.
- Processed foods: White bread, white rice, pastries, potato chips, and other foods with processed grains tend to be high in fat and low in dietary fiber.
When combined with limited exercise and water intake, these foods can lead to constipation and other health problems in the digestive tract.
Can depression make you constipated?
Depression can lead to constipation in some people. One study identified a connection between gastrointestinal distress and depression, both stemming from low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Treating constipation may be complicated by the link between serotonin and gastrointestinal health, since constipation is a common side effect of tricyclic antidepressants. Before beginning an antidepressant or any other medication prescribed by your doctor, you may ask about these and other side effects, particularly if you have a history of constipation and other digestive issues.
How does constipation affect the brain?
Researchers are still learning how constipation affects the brain. Current evidence suggests that low serotonin in the gut – often called the body’s “second brain” – may lead to constipation, and that serotonin shortages in the brain and gut are related.
Health professionals may be able to apply this research to treat brain-gut conditions like depression, which is also associated with low serotonin. Newer research additionally suggests that the type of gut bacteria, frequency of bowel movements, and other aspects of digestive health can affect a person’s thinking, memory skills, and other cognitive abilities as they age.
In some cases, chronic constipation could hint at a higher risk of age-related cognitive challenges like Alzheimer’s disease, although researchers are conducting more research to better understand this brain-microbiome connection.
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