Can stress cause constipation?
Can stress make you constipated? The short answer is ‘YES’ – stress can play a role in making you constipated, and how you cope with being stressed or worried can be a factor too.
The stress factor
We all experience and cope with stress in our own way. Some people thrive on it – while others have to deal with its uncomfortable or sometimes distressing effects.
Your brain and gut are in constant communication with each other, and what affects your brain can affect your gut and vice versa! Stress, and other emotions such as anxiety, depression or grief, can disturb this brain-gut communication and trigger uncomfortable gastrointestinal problems such as constipation or diarrhoea, bloating and painful stomach cramps – and what goes on in your gut can affect your mood too.
Did you know your gut has its own nervous system? It’s called the enteric nervous system or ENS for short. The ENS is made up of millions of neurons that help control various activities in your gut, including movement, blood flow and stomach secretions – but stress can start to interfere with things.
Stress starts in the brain – when you’re stressed your brain signals for help and stress hormones are released. These hormones may (either directly or indirectly) affect the bowel causing dysfunction for eg: regulation of the bowel movements.
Stress can affect your gut in different ways, including:
- Your gut muscles can be affected – causing constipation or diarrhoea by either slowing or speeding up the movement of food
- Stress can weaken the gut’s barrier that prevents food related bacteria entering the body
- Changes can occur in the millions of bacteria that make up your gut microbiota – resulting in a weaken gut barrier, slowed gut movement and affecting your mood.
Stress and other medical conditions
Stress can be a factor in other conditions, possibly helping to trigger an illness or making symptoms worse. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an example of a common condition that can be affected by stress and where constipation can be a problem.
Although the exact causes of IBS are not yet known, strong emotions caused by stress can trigger an attack. People with IBS are thought to have sensitive bowels that can become easily ‘upset’ and react to the stress related changes going on in the gut.
One of our inbuilt responses to stress is a change in eating habits. When we’re stressed some of us gravitate towards comfort foods, usually those high in fat and sugar that taste good and give us pleasure – exactly the type of diet low in fibre and fluids that can commonly bring on constipation or make it worse.
Tips on managing constipation
Changing your daily routine, not having enough fibre or fluids in your diet and not being active enough are all common reasons for constipation.
To help relieve your constipation, try improving these ‘lifestyle factors’ by, for example:
- Eating more high fibre foods or adding a fibre supplement to your diet
- Drinking more fluids – but limiting tea, coffee and other diuretic drinks
- Exercising regularly and trying to be as active as possible.
If lifestyle changes are not working for you, then over-the-counter laxatives may be the next step for short-term constipation relief – but always check with your doctor or pharmacist first to see which type would be best for you.
Tips on managing stress
To help reduce your stress levels, you may like to try some stress management strategies, which can include:
- Exercising regularly
- Taking time to relax
- Getting enough sleep
- Keeping a healthy support network of friends and family around you.
You may also want to take a closer look at what causes your stress and the way you react to it – being able to understand the causes may mean you’ll be more able to deal with it in the future.
If you find yourself troubled with recurring constipation due to stress it is important to talk to your doctor as they can help you find ways to manage and improve both your overall physical and mental well-being.