Most people aren't comfortable talking about their bowel movements. But the truth is that the digestive system is so attuned to how the mind feels that some people call it a "second brain." Your gut and your brain have an incredible connection, and that means that when something is wrong with your mental health, your digestive system will suffer.
So it is unfortunately no surprise that constipation is a symptom of anxiety. In fact, anxiety can cause both constipation and diarrhea, and sometimes switch between the two.
Constipation = Anxiety?
Your body often responds to the way you feel, and while many issues can cause constipation, those with anxiety often experience bowel troubles as a result. Take my anxiety test to find out how to reduce your anxiety so you can become regular again.
Anxiety Causes Constipation
One of the difficult issues in diagnosing constipation is that it can be caused by almost anything. Are you eating enough fiber? Are you drinking enough water? Are you in good health? Only a doctor can diagnose the cause of your constipation and your anxiety. Make sure you've taken my anxiety test.
If the question is whether or not anxiety is causing *your**_ constipation, that's hard to answer. But if the question is whether or not anxiety *can**_ cause constipation, the answer is a resounding yes, and it's fairly common as well. Anxiety causes many changes to your body that result in digestion issues. These include:
- Prioritized Responses Everyone responds to anxiety differently. Some have diarrhea. Some have constipation, some have both. But constipation is of particular interest. During periods of anxiety, the body prioritizes certain functions and deprioritizes others. Digestion isn't a priority because your body is too busy preparing your body for danger (aka the fight or flight response) and so it slows it down dramatically. Since the anxiety never seems to go away, constipation is the result.
- Bacterial Health/Intestinal Health There are little healthy bacteria that live inside your body that help break down food. When you're stressed, these important germs may become stressed as well. Bad intestinal flora may start to proliferate (usually your body keeps these in check) until you aren't digesting food the right way. That can cause constipation.
- General Behaviors Anxiety also has a tendency to change behaviors that cause constipation as a secondary effect. For example, those with anxiety tend to exercise less, eat unhealthy foods, drink too little water, and sit in uncomfortable ways. Almost everything you do has an effect on your digestion, and so these general behaviors can also cause you to become more constipated as a result.
A fascinating article on the effects of chronic stress (aka anxiety) was published by the New York Times titled "The Heavy Cost of Chronic Stress." As an example of the effects of stress, the newspaper discusses the effects of stress/anxiety on salmon:
"As the fish leap, flop and struggle upstream to spawn, their levels of cortisol, a potent stress hormone, surge, providing energy to fight the current. But the hormone also leads the salmon to stop eating. Their digestive tracts wither away. Their immune systems break down. And after laying their eggs, they die of exhaustion and infection, their bodies worn out by the journey."
Human beings don't quite have it this bad because salmon are expected to pass on after they give birth, while human beings have bodies that try their best to live forever. But the main effects are clear: when you have anxiety, the cortisol released from the stress causes your digestive system to work far less efficiently.
Digestion Causing Anxiety?
There are some that argue that problems with your digestion as a result of poor intestinal flora may actually be causing anxiety. These experts recommend taking probiotics (live, healthy bacteria) in order to rebuild your intestinal flora and improve your anxiety.
There is currently no evidence that this works, and some evidence that taking probiotics unnecessarily can actually hurt your digestive system. At the moment it looks as though this is another placebo treatment. But it's an interesting idea to think about nonetheless, and something worth monitoring in the future. There is certainly the possibility that your "second brain" could play a role in anxiety.
What to Do to Stop Anxiety Constipation
It would be great if there were some type of exercise you can do to control constipation caused by anxiety, but unfortunately as long as you still have anxiety, your body is still likely to continue to be constipated. It's the nature of the effects of anxiety.
There are some strategies that could at least help a little bit. Ideally, try to avoid laxatives unless instructed by your doctor. While they may be useful for stopping constipation, they also have a tendency to cause dehydration which can make your anxiety symptoms worse. What you should do:
- Eat a Constipation Diet Eat as though your constipation was due to poor diet, rather than anxiety. This won't cure your constipation, but it should reduce the severity of your constipation because your digestive system will be getting the nutrients it needs to ensure that food moves down the digestive tract at the most manageable rate. That means get fiber, drink water, and avoid foods that lead to constipation and poor digestion.
- Exercise Exercise is both an anxiety cure and a healthy way to move food through the digestive tract. Studies have shown that when you exercise, you process food at a much faster rate. The more intense your exercise, the better it is for both your anxiety and your constipation, so strongly consider introducing healthy exercise into your daily routine.
But of course, the best thing you can do is try to combat your anxiety.
I've helped thousands of people suffering from constipation overcome their anxiety starting with my free anxiety test, which will examine your symptoms, come up with an anxiety profile, and give you information on how to stop your anxiety forever.
If you haven't done so yet, take the test here now.
Elsevier (2011, March 22). Stress affects the balance of bacteria in the gut and immune response. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 8, 2013
Goode, Erica. The Heavy Cost Of Chronic Stress. The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Dec. 2002. Web. 08 Apr. 2013.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.