Does Stress Cause Constipation?
Updated November 14, 2019
Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
We have all at some point in our lives felt stress. Maybe we're taking a big exam or it's the first day of school or at a new job. Perhaps there are certain situations that give us stress at work, or among family and friends. 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, you will notice certain changes in your mood, behavior, and body. Stress can cause various effects on you both mentally and physically, such as:
- Heart issues
The amount of people suffering from moderate to high stress in America has increased to 44 percent, according to the American Psychological Association. The important thing to remember is that being able to identify your sources of stress and how to deal with it is the best way to get rid of the effects it has on your mental and physical health. When it comes to stress, seeking the help of a mental health professional is always a good idea, and they can give you the tools to manage daily stress.
Stress and My Body
One of the first body systems to be affected by stress is your GI, or gastrointestinal system. 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.
"Bowel movement" is the official term for poop. 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.
How Do I Know if I am Constipated?
"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. Finding the time to go to the bathroom to do more than pee was not in the cards. So, when you're stressed, your body presses pause on the poop. Constipation often takes turns with diarrhea in a stressed person. It's a 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 go" 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.
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.
Changes 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 and 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 gut and bowel movements.
Changing your diet can be an easy, mindful way to help you get to the bathroom and make your body feel better.
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. Getting your blood pumping is a great way to help avoid and prevent constipation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. If just the thought of going to the gym gives you hives, think about movement instead. Even just walking is a great option and a wonderful place to start.
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.
BetterHelp is a great resource for mental help. Their online network of mental health professionals that can get assigned to you makes it easy for you to seek treatment. Traveling to an appointment can be an additional layer of stress - it involves being comfortable with a new person in their office, and the transportation and traffic that can be involved. Instead of adding more stress while you are trying to treat it, being able to get online counseling with someone who cares and is a professional may be a good option to explore. Read below for 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."
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. And know that we over here at BetterHelp are a resource if you feel like you need help coping with stress as the source - take the first step.