Stress Constipation: Causes and Treatments

Do you know why stress causes constipation? What can you do to fix this problem? In this article, we'll tell you.
Stress Constipation: Causes and Treatments
José Padilla

Written and verified by the psychologist José Padilla.

Last update: 08 October, 2022

The brain and the gut have an intimate relationship via the gut-brain axis. Most of us have had, at least once in our lives, an unpleasant experience in which negative emotions and stress have affected our digestive system.

Excessive stress can produce alterations in motility, increasing visceral sensitivity and permeability. It can even affect the regenerative capacity of the gastrointestinal mucosa and cause damage to the microbiota. In addition, it can be the precipitating factor for the development of different digestive diseases. For instance, gastric reflux, peptic ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Another problem caused by stress is constipation. In fact, it’s one of the most frequent intestinal complaints, especially in women and the elderly. The problem is aggravated by today’s lifestyle, in which stress and poor nutrition are the protagonists.

Excessive stress can intensify constipation

The brain and gut are closely linked through branches of the nervous system. The millions of nerve cells lining the gut send information to the brain about what’s going on with the microbiome and with digestion in general. For this reason, the gut is known as the second brain.

However, the signals aren’t only sent from the intestine to the brain. The brain also sends messages to the digestive system. For example, when we think of food, our stomachs release various substances that prepare it for digestion.

When we’re under a great deal of stress, our brains prepare us via the fight, flight, or freeze response. It does this by releasing cortisol and adrenaline, which directly affect the activity of the intestine and digestion. These hormones change the direction of blood flow from the intestine to other organs necessary for our survival.

Research claims that these chemical alterations cause digestion to slow down, thus causing constipation. Stress can also make constipation worse, by altering the gut microbiome, leading to bacterial imbalances. When harmful bacteria take over, they can cause intestinal inflammation, which slows down digestion and causes constipation.

Also, when we’re stressed, our muscles tense up, including those in the gut. These help move food through our systems and speed up digestion and if they don’t relax or contract, they’re not doing their job properly.

Woman with stress constipation
The chemical alterations that occur in the body as a result of stress cause a slowdown in digestion that can lead to constipation.

Causes of stress constipation

According to one study, there are several ways stress can cause constipation:

  • In stressful situations, the body’s adrenal glands release adrenaline. This causes the body to divert blood flow from the intestines to vital organs, such as the heart, lungs, and brain. As a result, bowel movement slows down and constipation may occur.
  • In stressful situations, the body releases more corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) in the intestines. This hormone acts on the intestines, causing them to slow down and become inflamed. The intestines have different types of CRF receptors, some of which speed up certain processes, while others slow them down.
  • Stress increases intestinal permeability. It allows inflammatory compounds to enter the intestines, leading to a feeling of abdominal fullness. It’s a common complaint among people struggling with constipation.

Stress and constipation can also affect children. In fact, in a study with school-age children, researchers found a link between exposure to stressful life events and constipation. They also found that young people who’d experienced stress were more likely to suffer from constipation.

What measures can be taken against stress constipation?

To alleviate this condition, we can hydrate ourselves more and increase the proportion of fiber in our diet. Regular exercise also helps, as physical activity stimulates bowel movement, which helps relieve constipation.

Healthy eating is crucial

Constipation caused by stress may improve naturally with a good diet. Indeed, whatever the underlying health problem, there are some nutritional recommendations that are essential for the treatment of constipation:

  • Reduce the consumption of red and processed meats.
  • Avoid fried foods and low-quality fats.
  • Replace refined flours and cereals with whole grains.
  • Eat legumes.
  • Reduce the amount of milk and its derivatives.
  • Include fruits and dried fruits in the diet.
  • Choose cold-pressed vegetable oils such as coconut, olive, etc.
  • Consume fruits and vegetables, both raw and cooked, in every meal of the day.

Some studies suggest that dietary fiber can increase stool frequency in patients with constipation. However, it doesn’t improve stool consistency.

woman eating salad
A healthy diet helps fight constipation.

Psychological techniques to reduce stress

One simple way to reduce stress constipation is to improve the way we deal with our emotions. In this sense, it’s useful to employ the following strategies on a daily basis:

  • Ensure your schedule allows you quality free time for yourself.
  • Identify the causes of stress and learn to manage them.
  • Practice mindfulness or yoga.
  • Control any negative thoughts.
  • Listen to music that you like.
  • Use art as a means of expression.

Diaphragmatic breathing can also help reduce stress levels. To carry it out:

“Get in a comfortable position, close your eyes and watch your breathing. Pay attention to its rhythm and depth. Is it deep or shallow? Is it fast or slow? Then, place a hand on your abdomen and breathe, feeling your stomach inflate and deflate with each inhalation and exhalation. Place the other hand on your chest and try not to move it when you breathe. Only the one on your abdomen should move.

Breathe in slowly through your nose, so that the hand on your abdomen feels the pressure of it rising. The hand on your chest should remain stationary. Hold your breath for a moment and exhale slowly through your mouth, so that you feel the hand on your abdomen go down.”

Finally, stress constipation can be relieved with a change of lifestyle and eating habits. That said, if the problem is recurrent, you should visit a health professional. They can help in finding the best solutions for both stress and constipation.

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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.