Anxiety affects a person inside and out. One of the areas most sensitive to this change is the digestive system. The human digestive system is incredibly delicate. Even the smallest imbalance can lead to a host of bowel problems spanning the spectrum from minor discomfort to significant distress.
Bowel problems are commonly associated with anxiety, as stress can alter hormones, affect digestion speed, and put significant pressure on intestines. Throughout this article, we’ll explore the causes, symptoms, and solutions of bowel problems as they relate to anxiety and stress.
Types of Anxiety Bowel Problems
Your entire digestive tract is incredibly complex. There are plenty of medical issues - some common, some more serious - that can alter the health and behavior of the bowels, and lead to discomforts, wet stools, constipation, pain, and many other symptoms. From poor diet to illness, the bowels are often the place affected by a host of medical conditions.
There are also many bowel issues that can relate back to stress and anxiety as well. But what is interesting about bowel issues from anxiety is that they are related in a number of ways, some of which may not even yet be clear.
Below is a quick breakdown of some of the bowel problems that those with anxiety may struggle with. While it is not a comprehensive list, the bowel issues below are some of the most common reported issues and the ones that you or someone you care about may experience if they struggle from anxiety and stress related issues.
Diarrhea and Constipation
Two of the most common bowel issues connected to stress and anxiety are diarrhea and constipation. Of course, these two bowel issues are linked to hundreds of different causes and conditions, which is why sometimes these issues go unnoticed or are attributed to a different cause. But anxiety is still a frequent cause and contributor. These basic digestive issues affect a large percentage of those that struggle with severe stress.
Yet, interestingly, the cause of these issues is not always clear. Some possible causes are known, but it may be difficult to determine the exact mechanism that is affecting your particular diet. Some of the potential causes include:
- Changed Digestion - Anxiety releases adrenaline, and adrenaline may slow down the speed of your digestion. Any time your digestion speed changes, it may cause either diarrhea or constipation.
- Anxiety-Diet Changes - Sometimes, when people have stress, they change what they eat and drink. For example, if someone is suffering from anxiety related fatigue they may have more coffee to make up for it, which may cause diarrhea. Or they may eat ice-cream as a coping tool, leading to an upset stomach.
- Anxiety Related Sleep Deprivation - Anxiety can affect the quality of a person’s sleep, and sleep deprivation is also a trigger of diarrhea and constipation with a strong effect on digestion.
These are only some of the links between anxiety and diarrhea/constipation, with its connection to other issues like the processing of nutrients, muscle tension, dehydration (from sweating), and countless other potential changes to hormones.
The issue may also be related to neurotransmitters, the chemicals in the brain that affect emotions. The neurotransmitters that can lead to anxiety when out of balance, such as serotonin, are the same neurotransmitters telling your gut how to react. Thus, it is possible those with anxiety simply do not have enough of the specific neurotransmitters that are necessary for proper bowel functioning.
All of these can cause diarrhea and constipation.
Another common bowel problem associated with anxiety is gas. During periods of anxiety when digestion is slowed and diet affected, the result may not just be diarrhea and constipation. It may also be gas, which the body creates any time digestion isn’t working properly. Gas can be both smelly and painful, and in some cases can lead to increased stress in social situations.
There are other issues that may lead to gas and flatulence as well. Those with anxiety are prone to air swallowing and hyperventilation, and these can lead to excess air in the body. Usually, this air is released through the mouth, but in some cases, it can be released through the bowel instead.
Another bowel issue connected to stress and anxiety, and one that often goes hand in hand with diarrhea, is stool discoloration. The effect anxiety can have on one’s digestive tract can result in food moving through the digestive tract too quickly. Because food generally gets its color as it moves down the intestines, moving too quickly can result in discoloration. These include:
- Yellow stool.
- Black stool.
- Grayish brown stool.
While this is a fairly common bowel symptom of stress and anxiety, if at any time you are concerned about your stool color, seek advice from a medical professional.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
There is an entire disorder that, in some cases, may be directly related to anxiety and stress. It is called irritable bowel syndrome. It is unclear whether stress and anxiety lead to IBS or simply exacerbate symptoms. Nonetheless, they often occur together.
Although symptoms of IBS vary depending on the individual, the associated bowel problems can take a significant toll on one’s life. Common IBS symptoms include cramping, diarrhea, constipation, gas, and bloating.
The "Need to Go"
Finally, anxiety can also cause an ongoing feeling of urgency, or needing to go to the bathroom.
This is due to the fight or flight system being activated as a result of stress. Pressure builds up inside of the body, causing stool to feel like it needs to come out. Also, during times of intense stress, the body uses increased amounts of energy, leaving less energy to hold the anal sphincter in place.
How to Overcome Bowel Issues
Dealing with the bowel issues connected to stress and anxiety can be very difficult, as bowels function automatically. Seeking medical attention, exploring how different foods affect you and identifying ways to manage stress and anxiety are all helpful ways to begin to manage bowel issues.