Stress Constipation: Causes And Cures

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Stress can affect nearly every aspect of our lives at home, at work, and in our relationships. Stress can manifest in our cognitive functioning, emotions, and physical well-being. For example, stress is a factor in cardiovascular and vascular diseases, such as hypertension, and often translates into other health concerns, including constipation. 

Constipation is a common ailment, and there are many ads about remedies for constipation. While the products featured in these ads may alleviate the discomfort of constipation by inducing a bowel movement, not many focus on the causes of the condition. In addition, they rarely mention that stress can be a factor in how and when we can go to the bathroom. Below, we’ll explore how physical and emotional stress, as well as other lifestyle factors can cause constipation and what you can do about it. 

Is stress negatively affecting your digestive health?

Stress and the digestive system

So, can stress induce bowel dysfunction? Well, Stress can affect digestive systems in several ways, including by interfering with the proper breakdown and absorption of food in the stomach and intestines. Stress, which can divert blood flow toward the vital organs, can also cause vascular problems that can lead to constipation. This is due in part to the inadequate blood flow to and from our bowels.

For example, people with hypertension sometimes have severe bleeding of hemorrhoids, and pain and swelling from hemorrhoids can cause constipation because it becomes difficult to pass waste through the rectum. 

Blockage due to vascular restrictions can be a severe problem that can lead to emergency surgery to remove the blockage. In addition, trapped waste in the intestines can cause increased intestinal permeability, which can lead to a higher level of gut inflammation. In addition, trapped waste can also cause abdominal fullness (also known as bloating), fatigue, and weight gain. Our bowels are essential for transporting toxins out of our bodies each day. Gas, bad breath, and body odor can also result from bowel dysfunction.

Digestive system issues have also been connected to disturbed sleep, with some research indicating that people who failed to get enough sleep (specifically those with IBS) exhibited more bowel dysfunction symptoms. One cross-sectional study found that shortened sleep duration also resulted in a higher constipation risk for men, while excessive sleep was connected to a higher constipation risk for women. Because stress may also cause disturbed sleep, a negative cycle could be created that intensifies the symptoms of each condition.

You can buy products to assist with the process of gut motility and flush out toxins and waste from the body. However, these are often only temporary fixes when these problems come about due to stress from our lifestyles, work, or diet. When we are stressed, our body reacts by releasing stress hormones. While cortisol may be the most well-known of these hormones, our body will also release a hormone called epinephrine. Epinephrine and cortisol can cause our vascular system to become stressed, and if our vascular system is stressed, we may be more likely to experience stress constipation.

Functional gastrointestinal disorders and stress

Functional gastrointestinal disorders are a group of health issues related to persistent problems with digestion and elimination, including constipation. Two common disorders in this group are irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional constipation. These disorders do not result from any obvious abnormality you may find in hospitalized patients, such as a tumor, so blood tests, x-rays, and MRIs often cannot diagnose them. However, these conditions often accompany excessive stress that can profoundly affect the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract, for example, by slowing or completely stopping intestinal movements and functioning. In addition, the symptoms of these disorders can exacerbate stress, which, in turn, can worsen the physical symptoms. For this reason, doctors often recommend that people with functional gastrointestinal disorders seek psychotherapy as part of the healing process, along with changes in diet and lifestyle. 

Recent research confirms a powerful connection between gut health and psychological well-being. Our gut is endowed with myriad nerve cells communicating via the vagus nerve to our brains about what is happening in our bodies. This interaction between the gut and brain is called the gut-brain axis, and it is often the basis of disorders such as IBS and functional constipation. In addition, one study found that gastrointestinal distress is often linked to depression. According to the study, the body releases decreased amounts of the neurotransmitter serotonin as a result of these conditions. In animal studies, lower levels of serotonin cause constipation. 

Lifestyle factors affecting constipation

Several lifestyle factors can significantly influence whether a person develops constipation, and all of these can be affected by the amount of stress a person experiences and how they handle it. Lifestyle factors leading to constipation can include how often a person takes a bathroom break, dietary choices, hydration, and exercise. Chronic stress can also disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, weaken the intestinal barrier, and lead to inflammation, which can contribute to both digestive issues and mental health challenges. Let’s take a detailed look at each of these factors and how they relate to stress.

Inadequate bathroom breaks as a cause of constipation

An older man is sitting on a couch and looking ahead; he is holding a cane and smiling.

One leading cause of constipation is the inability to take a bathroom break when we need to go. Many healthy individuals train their bowels to act at certain times of the day because this is more convenient. However, this is not as nature intended. If a person is working and they do not take time to go to the bathroom, they often find that the urge to move the bowels has passed when they finally get to a toilet.

The type of work we do can cause constipation when we have an occupation needing constant attention, such as teaching or being a surgeon. With these two professions, individuals cannot readily leave their stations to use the bathroom. However, ignoring our body’s signal that it is time to move the bowels can lead to constipation. 

Hydration is essential for bowel movements 

Another way our jobs or lifestyles can get in the way of proper and regular bowel functioning is through the inconvenience of adequate hydration. Again, occupation can get in the way, as sometimes the pressures of our job make us feel there is no time to drink the amount of water our bodies need to function. In addition, drinking more liquids means taking more bathroom breaks to pass urine. Therefore, many people who drive for a living or are in occupations such as teaching avoid drinking water while performing their jobs. The resulting dehydration can quickly lead to constipation.

Dietary causes of constipation

Diet is a crucial factor in how our digestive system works, and our bowel movements depend on how well the digestive system works. If we lack fiber in our diets, we tend to have poor digestion, which can lead to constipation. One meta-analysis published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology (often abbreviated as World J. Gastroenterol.) found that dietary fiber directly increases stool frequency in patients with constipation. So,if we regularly eat unhealthy food, the lack of fiber can easily result in constipation. Part of the solution is to eat a diet high in fiber and low in refined carbohydrates. 

Another dietary factor that can cause constipation concerns microbial gut health. The gut contains trillions of beneficial microorganisms that help us digest food, absorb nutrients, and eliminate toxins and waste products. Stress and a poor diet can reduce the balance of these beneficial microbes, which can affect our bowel movements.

Two types of foods can have a profound effect on gut health: probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are foods containing an abundance of gut-healthy microorganisms, including live culture yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso. Prebiotic foods tend to be high in dietary fibers that feed beneficial gut microorganisms. Prebiotic foods include dandelion greens, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, bananas, oats, and apples. By eating probiotic and prebiotic foods daily, you can improve the health of your gut, and this can lead to better overall mental and physical health. 

Exercise, medication, and constipation

A lack of regular exercise can also contribute to developing constipation. One of the reasons exercise helps with bowel movements is that it keeps the diaphragm and abdominal muscles strong and healthy, and these parts of the body aid in moving the bowels. Aside from helping prevent constipation, physical activity can be effective for reducing stress.

Certain medications can also contribute to constipation. One example would be NSAIDs, which are often used to treat pain. The combination of the anti-inflammatory compounds and other ingredients can block Cyclooxygenase-1 (COX-1), a membrane protein. While this helps reduce the symptoms of pain, its inhibition can also cause intestinal problems. 

Other medications may assist with constipation. Research published in the Expert Review of Gastroenterology & Hepatology (often abbreviated as Expert Rev. Gastroenterol. Hepatol.) cited the prevalence of chronic idiopathic constipation worldwide and the need for new treatment modalities. Their research cited Elobixibat, a type of IBAT inhibitor, though the paper states that further studies are required to confirm the efficacy of this medication.

Therapy can help relieve stress

Several forms of psychotherapy can help reduce stress and impart evidence-based coping skills to manage it better. In addition, psychotherapy is a recommended option for many people with functional gastrointestinal disorders like IBS or functional constipation. Treatments that may help reduce stress and improve bowel function include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

This treatment tends to focus on teaching people to change negative thought patterns that can exacerbate anxiety disorders and stress. It may also benefit those who have recently received psychiatric diagnoses, as it can allow an individual to talk about their symptoms and experiences.


Hypnotherapy uses deep relaxation techniques and positive thinking and images to reduce stress, and it can be useful for improving gastrointestinal functioning. 

Relaxation therapy

This psychotherapy treatment involves multiple techniques to help a person relax through deep breathing, visualization, and calming music. When you lower your stress levels, previously disturbed bowel functions may improve. 

Online therapy for help with stress

If you’re not feeling well physically or if you don’t like the idea of going to a therapist’s office, you might try online therapy, which research has shown to be just as effective as in-person therapy. In addition, if you are experiencing stress-linked conditions, the convenience of talking to a therapist from home or anywhere else you have internet can reduce the hassle and tension you might feel if you traveled to a therapist’s office. 

With BetterHelp, you can connect with a licensed therapist via audio or video chat at a time that works for your schedule.

Is stress negatively affecting your digestive health?


If you’re experiencing stress related to constipation or other gastrointestinal problems, know that this is a common concern, and you don’t have to face it alone. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with an online therapist with experience helping people navigate similar challenges, and you can always change therapists until you find a good match.  
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