Does Stress Cause Constipation?
Updated January 25, 2019
What is Stress?
Stress is a physical and emotional response to external factors (job, kids, financial strain, and life-changes) and internal factors (pain, illness, anxiety, etc.). It is widely believed that a little stress is good for you - it gives you just enough pressure to keep going. A little stress can be offset with rest and self-care. When stress gets out of hand and goes on for long periods of time, you will notice certain changes in your mood, behavior, and body. Stress feels like tension. Your neck and shoulders feel tense. Stress makes you irritable and distracted. Stress causes mental confusion as you get more overwhelmed with the things you have to do. Stress can certainly cause illness and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Stress and My Body
One of the first body systems to be affected by stress is your GI system. GI stands for gastrointestinal. We know that stress that goes on for too long causes ulcers, indigestion, constipation, and loose stools. Left unaddressed it can cause IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and other chronic GI issues.
Whether you prefer the word poop or poo, turd or dump, dookie or deuce - you know how important it is to maintain regular bowel movements. 'Bowel movement' is the official term for poop. Pooping is an integral part of our language as anyone who has raised children knows. As the mother of three boys, I became highly aware of the glee and delight children experience when they are talking about this ordinary daily activity. If you have kids, you'll know what I mean. It can be embarrassing to talk to your doctor about bowel movements. But it's best to address constipation early, as it can get very uncomfortable.
Types of Poop: How to Describe What's Going on in There
There are all kinds of pooping problems. Here are a few ways to describe what might be going on for you in a light-hearted manner:
- Ghost Poop: You feel the poop come out, but there is no poop in the toilet.
- Clean Poop: You poop, it's in the toilet, but there's nothing on the toilet paper.
- Second Wave Poop: You're done pooping and you've pulled your pants up to your knees, but something tells you-you're not done.
- Brain Hemorrhage Poop: (Also known as "Pop a vein in your forehead" poop).The kind where you strain so much to get it out that you practically have a stroke.
- Gassy Poop: Everyone within earshot is giggling.
- Log Poop: The kind of poop that is so huge that you're afraid to flush the toilet without breaking it into a few pieces with your toilet brush.
- Sweetcorn Poop: Self-explanatory.
- Wet Cheeks Poop: Comes out of your butt so fast, your cheeks get splashed with water.
- "Gee I wish I could poop" Poop: The kind of poop where you want to poop, but all you do is sit on the toilet with cramps.
- Spinal Tap Poop: That's the one where it hurts so much coming out that you swear it was leaving you sideways.
- Upper-Class Poop: This poop doesn't smell.
- The Dangling Poop: This poop refuses to drop, and you just pray that a shake or two will cut it loose. [Source: https://jokescompany.com/poop-jokes/]
How Do I Know if I am Constipated?
All this pooping isn't as simple as it seems. It's a sensitive system. 'Constipation' is a term used to describe what happens when you struggle with bowel movements.
You know if you are constipated because:
- You don't have a bowel movement every day or every other day.
- You have hard or small bowel movements.
- You may have belly bloating.
- You might have pain and discomfort.
- You might be straining to go.
- You might have a sense of not getting everything out.
- Constipation might prevent you from being able to perform normal activities.
Though it's not life-threatening, to begin with, constipation left unaddressed can cause you to become impacted, develop ulcerative colitis or develop painful hemorrhoids.
Why Does Stress Cause Constipation?
The belly and bowels are referred to as your second brain because they so readily register stress. The gut is its own ecosystem with a large neural network. There are more neurons in your gut than in your entire spinal cord. They communicate in the gut's ecosystem with bacteria in a complex mesh-like system. Constipation is one way that your body registers stress. It tells you this ecosystem is out of whack.
There is an evolutionary reason for all this 'poop pausing' when you're stressed. Our ancestors would not have wanted to take time to find the best squatting spot in the middle of a stressful situation. So when you're stressed, your body presses pause on the poop.
Constipation often takes turns with diarrhea in a stressed person. It's ping pong effect. This is one reason that it is important to avoid taking medications as a quick fix. Your body will not be able to regulate itself when you're alternating stool softeners and anti-diarrhea medications.
There are other reasons why stress has this pause the poop effect. When you are stressed, you may be distracted from taking care of yourself. This may cause dietary and physical lifestyle changes, like:
- Drinking less water
- Skipping meals
- Eating unhealthy foods
- Not exercising
- Shallow breathing which messes with all body systems
All of these issues contribute to constipation.
Stress - Anxiety Link - Constipation Link
Chronic stress causes anxiety, which in turn causes physical symptoms, like:
- Muscle tension
- Acid reflux
- Loss of appetite
These symptoms affect your body's ability to produce regular bowel movements.
How To Prevent Constipation
Suffering from constipation is painful, uncomfortable and embarrassing. Fortunately, there are lifestyle changes you can make to reduce the prevalence of constipation you experience. Changes in your approach to wellness can help dramatically in reducing constipation caused by stress.
Protecting Your Physical Health
There are changes that can be made to improve your physical health and reduce constipation. With changes in diet and exercise, you will reduce the rate and severity of all GI issues including constipation. Consider making the following changes to reduce constipation:
- Drink more water. Dehydration worsens constipation. Make sure you are drinking enough water throughout the day to help reduce constipation.
- Eat more fiber foods. Fiber helps to stimulate bowel movements.
- Reduce the amount of caffeine consumed. 1-2 cups per day will stimulate the digestive tract, making it more likely you will have a bowel movement. Having too much caffeine will cause you to become constipated due to dehydration.
- Fiber and Prebiotic supplements - You generally need more soluble & insoluble fiber than your diet gives you. Motility (movements) in the gut can be an issue if you sit all day for work. Buy non-thickening, unflavored fiber powder and mix it with anything you like to drink. Many new fiber products such as chews and cookies have popped up on the market. You can also buy unprocessed wheat bran in powder form to add to food or drinks. Prebiotics are available as a supplement.
- Probiotics help regulate the gut and bowel movements.
It is important to maintain an exercise regimen to keep motility (your bowels moving). Exercise will not only regulate your bowel movements, but it will also help with stress management by burning nervous energy. If just the thought of going to the gym gives you hives, think about movement instead. Walking is great exercise.
It is important to learn good stress management skills to prevent constipation. Along with diet and exercise, consider incorporating meditation, breathing, mindfulness, and relaxation exercises, which will improve mental health, into your daily routine. If you feel you need assistance with stress management skills, consider consulting a mental health professional, who will be able to teach you strategies to improve overall mental health and wellness.
As a counselor, I see a lot of clients with complaints of constipation due to stress. You're now aware of the ravaging, well-documented effects of stress and anxiety on your gut - your 'second brain'. Four standard protocols - supplements, fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics, along with adequate hydration, are the first steps in correcting any imbalance that is contributing to constipation. These protocols should be long-term, along with the other suggested lifestyle changes. Using laxatives will make matters worse. Focus on coping with stress, using your four standard protocols and improving your wellness.