How Does Stress Trigger Constipation?

How Does Stress Trigger Constipation?

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It seems like everybody is stressed nowadays. We’ve all got too much to do, and many of us are overworking and slowly burning out.

Whilst a small amount of stress can actually be physiologically beneficial for the human body (and is actually necessary), chronically high stress can be detrimental to your health. Being constantly stressed can have negative effects on all parts of your body, including your digestive system.

You might find that you experience more digestive issues when you’re going through a particularly stressful period in your life. One of the most common digestive symptoms associated with high stress is constipation. Many people experience diarrhoea when they’re stressed, particularly those with a digestive health condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

In this article, we want to talk about why stress often leads to constipation, looking at the physical and psychological components. We're going to cover the main reasons why you’re more likely to get constipated when you’re stressed, and we'll give our top tips for stress management and natural constipation relief. Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ll feel confident knowing what to do if you’re particularly anxious and are having trouble with each bowel movement.

Does Stress Cause Constipation?

Both psychological and physical stress can contribute to constipation in a number of ways. When your brain senses stress, it responds in the same way, regardless of the source of this stress.

The perception of stress causes your body to signal the adrenal glands to release cortisol, which causes a number of physiological responses. It diverts blood from your digestive tract to your skeletal muscles to prepare for potentially fighting or fleeing from the ‘danger’.

When less blood flows through your digestive tract, your gut motility (the rate at which food moves through your digestive tract) and the stool sit in your colon for longer than usual. As a result, you’re more likely to feel bloated and constipated.

Main Causes of Constipation From Stress

Stress leads to constipation for several different reasons, including the following.

1. Disruptions to your usual schedule 

Stress can also disrupt your usual toilet habits. For example, if the reason you’re stressed is that you’ve got more work and a busier schedule than you’re used to, you might struggle to go to the toilet at the time you usually would. Irregular or infrequent toilet trips can lead to constipation and exacerbate your stress even further.

2. Stress-related muscle tension

Chronic stress can cause muscle tension throughout the entire body, including in your abdomen and digestive tract. Increased muscle tension can slow gut motility and interfere with your normal bowel movements, making it much harder to pass stool. As a result, you might find that when you are stressed, not only do your muscles ache and feel stiff, but you also become constipated.

 3. Changes in the gut microbiota

The gut microbiota (or gut microbiome, as you might hear it called) comprises billions of microorganisms, including beneficial (probiotic) bacteria, that promote healthy digestion. If something disrupts the natural balance in your gut microbiome (leading to gut dysbiosis), the levels of probiotic bacteria can be reduced, which negatively affects your digestion.

Imbalances in the gut microbiota is associated with increased digestive symptoms, including constipation. Commonly, poor diet, and excess stress are known to cause gut dysbiosis.

4. Dietary changes

During times of stress, you might find that your eating habits change. Often, when individuals are stressed, they reach for convenience foods that are typically high in saturated fats, sugar, and salt. Some people skip meals and restrict calories when they feel stressed as a coping mechanism. 

Regardless of whether you overconsume or underconsume calories when you are stressed, those scenarios can increase the risk of constipation. Irregular eating habits, poor food choices, or skipping meals altogether can reduce your intake of digestion-friendly nutrients, such as fibre, vitamins, and minerals. It can also reduce your water intake, causing you to become dehydrated, drying, and making it harder to have a bowel movement.

5. Changes to your sleeping patterns

Stress, especially when chronic, can disrupt sleep, and is one of the many causes of constipation. You might find that when you are stressed, both your quality and quantity significantly decrease.

Irregular sleep patterns and chronic sleep deprivation can negatively impact the body’s hormone production, exacerbating digestive issues, such as constipation.

6. Medications

Constipation is a common side effect of medications that are used to manage stress, anxiety, or depression, or those that are prescribed to increase iron levels within the body. Taking these medications regularly can lead to chronic constipation, and your doctor may prescribe a laxative to counteract this unwanted side effect.

7. Underlying health conditions

If you suffer from a chronic health problem, you might be more prone to digestive issues like constipation and bloating due to your condition. However, stress can’t exacerbate many medical health issues, worsening their symptoms. 

In particular, digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, are sensitive to stress. Individuals with these health conditions often find that during periods of stress and anxiety, their toilet habits significantly change, and they become more constipated or experience diarrhoea.

Tips to Manage Stress

Managing your stress is crucial for keeping constipation at bay. Here are my top tips for stress management.

Identify your stressors

The first step to managing your stress is identifying your stressors, which are the things that trigger your stress and anxiety. These triggers will be unique to you and may include things like work stress, financial worries, or health problems.

Understanding your triggers means you can develop strategies to reduce them and eliminate them completely, if possible. Implementing stress-relieving techniques into your daily routine to tackle your specific stressors will ensure you minimise your anxiety and stress and get rid of digestive symptoms.

Practice mindfulness techniques

Mindfulness requires you to be fully present in your thoughts and feelings and avoid the distractions of your surroundings. Although this sounds relatively easy, it can be difficult to learn to live in the present moment.

Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, gentle stretching, and body scans, can help you to stay calm. In turn, you can reduce your stress and increase self-awareness. Practising daily mindfulness will keep you relaxed and resilient to life’s many stressors. 

Exercise regularly

Although exercise is technically a form of physical stress on the body, it is beneficial stress (known as eustress), as it causes helpful adaptations that improve your health. Exercise can also be great for your psychological health as it can promote feelings of euphoria (think of the runner’s high) and improve self-esteem in the long run.

Incorporating exercise into your daily routine can support your overall health and well-being, reduce stress, and minimise digestive symptoms. It’s recommended that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as jogging, swimming, or cycling, or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise a week, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or sprints, for optimal health.

Make sure to find a form of exercise that you enjoy, which may include running, walking, weightlifting, sports, swimming, yoga, or dancing. Regardless of the type of exercise, you choose, finding something you enjoy will help keep you motivated and healthy for years to come.

Don’t be afraid to set boundaries

Establish your boundaries and stick with them. It’s important to be realistic when it comes to the amount that you can handle, whether this is in a professional or personal sense. Setting boundaries shows you work within your capabilities and don’t overdo things, preventing burnout, stress, and poor mental health.

Learn to say no to things that don’t serve you or will disrupt your usual schedule, unless it is something that you want to do or feel that it will benefit you personally. Doing so well, create a better balance between your work and social lives, making time management, much simpler and more effective for you.

Socialise with others

Social connectivity is essential for good health and well-being. Laughing and interacting with other people can promote the release of serotonin in the brain, which can act as a natural mood booster and stress reliever.

Reach out to your family members and friends, and make a conscious effort to see them or speak to them regularly. Don’t be afraid to open up and share your feelings and experiences with others, as doing so will help to strengthen your relationships and foster sense of belonging within your support network.

How to Relieve Constipation

Now that I have run through some helpful stressful techniques let’s take a look at how you can relieve constipation naturally, regardless of its root cause.

Stay active, even when you’re on holiday

If you get constipated when you’re on holiday, you’re not alone. Many people are prone to digestive issues when they’re away from home, mostly because of a change in their usual routine.

When you are travelling and enjoying a holiday, you are often less active than usual. You tend to relax more and be a lot more sedentary, which can slow your digestion down and increase the risk of constipation. 

Making a conscious effort to stay active, eat relatively healthy (although you can still indulge in some treats whilst you are away), stay hydrated whilst travelling, and stay on vacation will minimise the risk and severity of constipation. Keep your body moving by going on walks to explore the local area or jumping in the pool or sea if you are on a summer vacation in a hot country.

Eat healthily and avoid high-fat, high-salt foods

Foods that are high in saturated fats and salt can slow digestive processes, and also cause you to become more dehydrated, both of which can result in bloating, constipation, and abdominal discomfort.

Aim to consume no more than six grams of salt a day, as recommended by the NHS, and avoid high-fat foods as much as possible, as they are packed full of calories and often provide no nutritional benefits for your body. Create homemade meals that are rich in nutrients and fuel your body with the good stuff. Doing so will improve your physical health as well as aid your toilet regularity.

When on holiday, choose the healthier foods that are relatively low in saturated fat and salt. Although this might not sound as exciting as indulging in fast food and fatty dishes, you won’t regret making healthier choices when you can enjoy your entire holiday without digestive discomfort.

Consume probiotic-rich foods

Probiotic-containing foods can be beneficial for digestion. They contain the same strains of bacteria that reside naturally in your gut, helping to boost their numbers.

Probiotic bacteria help break down food and produce beneficial compounds (such as vitamin K, vitamin B12, and short-chain fatty acids (SCFA)) in the colon. They also support the immune system by preventing harmful pathogens from crossing the intestinal lining and entering the bloodstream.

Probiotic foods and supplements can, therefore, support your natural gut microbiome and improve your digestion. Foods that are abundant in probiotics include yoghurt, tempeh, tofu, miso, and sauerkraut. You can also consume probiotic supplements, such as our specially formulated supplement, A Dose For Bloating.

A Dose For Bloating is packed with one million probiotic bacteria and several digestive enzymes and plant extracts to keep bloating at bay and support a healthy digestive system. Taking just one or two capsules a day is enough to see positive benefits, and you’ll notice the difference within just a couple of weeks of taking the supplement daily.

Practice good toilet habits

You might struggle with regularity if you fail to get into a regular toilet routine. Although you don’t necessarily need to have a bowel movement at the exact same time every day, creating some sort of routine can help your body clock get into a nice rhythm, so you naturally feel the urge to go to the toilet every day or every alternate day.

You might prefer to go to the toilet in the morning before you start your daily tasks or go to work, or maybe you prefer to wait until the evenings to go to the toilet when you are feeling more relaxed. Regardless of your preferences, find a daily routine that works well for you, and promotes regularity and may eliminate constipation long-term, so you can avoid getting constipated or experiencing additional digestive issues.