High levels of stress can cause or aggravate gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, stomach pain, and changes in bowel movements, which can include constipation.
Researchers have identified various connections between the brain and stomach that may lead to constipation symptoms. A range of treatments and remedies can help relieve stress-related constipation.
In this article, we cover some of the possible links between stress and constipation, along with potential treatments.
Constipation means that a person has difficulty passing stool or does not have bowel movements very often. Constipation symptoms vary among individuals and can include:
- fewer than three bowel movements per week
- dry, hard, or lumpy stool
- bowel movements that are difficult or painful to pass
- feeling unable to empty the bowels
Many factors can cause constipation. Common causes of constipation are dehydration, a lack of physical activity, and a poor diet — for example, not eating enough fiber.
Stress can also lead to constipation. When psychological stress leads to physical symptoms, they are known as somatic symptoms.
The effects that stress hormones have on the body can cause constipation. In addition, when a person is stressed, they are more likely to eat an unhealthful diet, get less exercise or sleep, or forget to stay hydrated. These factors can lead to constipation.
According to an article in the journal Expert Review of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, researchers have identified several ways in which stress can cause constipation:
- In stressful situations, the body’s adrenal glands release a hormone called epinephrine, which plays a role in the so-called fight-or-flight response. It causes the body to divert blood flow from the intestines toward vital organs, such as the heart, lungs, and brain. As a result, intestinal movement slows down, and constipation can occur.
- In response to stress, the body releases more corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) in the bowels. This hormone acts directly on the intestines, which it can slow down and cause to become inflamed. The intestines have different types of CRF receptors, some of which speed up processes in the intestines, while others slow them down.
- Stress causes increased intestinal permeability. This permeability allows inflammatory compounds to come into the intestines, which can lead to a feeling of abdominal fullness — a common complaint among people who struggle with constipation.
- Stress may affect the normal healthy bacteria in the gut. Research has not confirmed this theory, but many people believe that stress may reduce the number of healthy gut bacteria in the body, thus slowing digestion.
While researchers have come a long way in discovering links between stress and constipation, there is still more to learn. Research into stress hormones and their effects on the body is ongoing.
Stress and constipation may affect children, as well. In a study of school-aged children, researchers found a link between exposure to stressful life events and constipation.
The researchers found that young people who had experienced life stresses, such as severe illness, a failed exam, or the loss of a caregiver’s job, were more likely to report constipation.
Some of the best ways to relieve constipation include improving the diet, eating plenty of fiber, and staying hydrated. Regular exercise can also help because physical activity encourages motion in the intestines, which helps relieve constipation. These lifestyle measures are also likely to benefit mental health and reduce daily levels of stress.
Alcohol, cigarettes, and foods high in sugar and fat can all increase the risk of constipation and stress. Avoiding or limiting these items may improve both symptoms.
People can use standard constipation treatments for stress-related constipation, including gentle laxatives, stool softeners, or prescription medications. However, these treatments do not address the underlying cause of constipation. Using them for too long could reduce the body’s ability to get rid of stool naturally.
Sometimes, people may benefit from professional therapy to help them identify sources of stress that may lead to constipation. This therapy might be particularly helpful for people with a history of trauma or mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.
Engaging in daily stress-relieving activities may also help. Examples of these activities include meditation, yoga, journaling, reading a book, and listening to peaceful music.
In addition, it is important to try not to rush or force going to the bathroom. If a person allows time for the need to go to develop, they may feel less stressed about the process.
Stress can lead to constipation in several ways. Stress hormones directly influence bowel movements by affecting bodily processes. In addition, people are more likely to have a poor diet, drink too little water, and get less exercise when stressed, which can cause constipation.
If a person struggles with frequent constipation due to stress, they should talk to a doctor, who will be able to help them find solutions for both the stress and the constipation.