The Link Between Stress and Constipation
Constipation is when a person is experiencing infrequent bowel movements or difficulty passing stools. The condition is characterized by the following symptoms:
- Passing less than 3 stools a week.
- Hard, dry or lumpy stools.
- Straining during bowel movements.
- Incomplete bowel movements.
- Painful bowel movements.
Chronic constipation is diagnosed when a person experiences two or more of the symptoms for a period of two consecutive months. A variety of health conditions can cause chronic constipation and the diagnosis requires professional medical help. However, irrespective of how often you experience constipation or how severe your condition is, there are certain factors that can increase your risk of constipation, the most well known of which are dehydration, a lack of physical activity and not having enough fiber in your diet.
There are also factors you can’t control, such as age or gender, with women and older adults being at a higher risk of suffering from constipation. The last, but unfortunately not the least thing that triggers constipation is stress. Stressful situations make the different glands in our body release certain hormones, which can then wreak havoc on different systems, your gut included. The first of those hormones is epinephrine, which is produced by the adrenal glands.
Epinephrine makes the body redirect the blood flow from the gut in favor of increasing the blood supply to the heart, lungs, and brain. This is part of the so-called fight or flight response to stress. This results in worse blood supply to the gut and possibly the slowing down of intestinal movement, which can result in constipation.
The second hormone that can cause constipation is the corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF), which is secreted in the part of our brain called the hypothalamus. Through blood, this hormone travels directly to the intestines, making them slow down and increases the risk of constipation.
Apart from that, stress can affect your gut lining, making your abdomen feel heavy or full. Finally, stressful situations are suggested to reduce the number of healthy gut bacteria, possibly because we tend to eat unhealthy when we’re stressed out, which may further slow down digestion and result in constipation as well.
How to Get Rid of Stress-Related Constipation
As you can see, stress can cause constipation in several ways, which means that using laxatives and other remedies for constipation will only give you temporary relief. To get rid of the problem for good, you have to both maximize your digestive health and address the underlying cause - stress. There are several things you can do to improve your symptoms, here are the main ones:
1. Physical Activity
The one thing that can simultaneously reduce your stress levels and prevent constipation is exercise. Physical activity has been found time and time to help fight depression and anxiety, as well as improve digestive flow. You can choose any type of physical activity you enjoy, be it running, walking, swimming, or going to the gym. The easiest thing you can do right away, however, is just follow a quick and easy yoga tutorial that targets digestion and stress relief.
Here is a great one: 17-Minute Yoga Practice to Reduce Negativity
2. Diet and Hydration
Dehydration alone can cause constipation, this is exactly why people often get bloated and constipated while traveling, so try to fulfill the daily minimum of 6 glasses of liquids a day to prevent constipation. Apart from that, make sure your diet contains plenty of fiber-rich foods, such as fruit, nuts, and legumes, as the lack of fiber is a major risk factor of constipation as well. Finally, make sure your diet is full of probiotic-rich fermented foods, such as yogurt and pickled vegetables.
3. Avoid Foods That Cause Constipation
Certain foods are known to consistently cause constipation and stress. These foods include alcohol, foods high in sugar and fatty foods. Try avoiding or minimizing the amount of these foods in your diet.
Smoking is also often associated with a higher risk of constipation, so that's another reason to ditch the harmful habit. Lastly, pay close attention to how coffee affects your body: for some people, it helps them go to the bathroom, but it can cause constipation and increase stress and anxiety in others.
4. Don’t Force It
Many people who are suffering from constipation are actually finding themselves in a vicious circle: they get constipated, they can't go to the bathroom, which makes them stressed and worsens the problem even more. To avoid this issue, try to relax, don't push yourself and give yourself time to go to the bathroom, even if it means taking several trips to the bathroom daily.
5. Engage in Relaxing Activities
If stress is causing your constipation, you have to put in the time to de-stress and do something you find pleasant and relaxing. This can be any activity, such as listening to music, cleaning your home, mindful breathing, or meditation. You can also try to engage in one of the activities we discuss in a dedicated article about coping with stress: Feeling Stressed or Anxious? Here's How You Can Beat It